Environmental Diplomacy

Kurk Dorsey

Environmental diplomacy can be broken into two general categories: conventions regulating the use of natural resources, and conventions regulating pollution. In each case, the central problem is that political boundaries rarely reflect biological boundaries, so that as national economies consume resources and produce pollution, they spread environmental problems far beyond their national boundaries. The sheer size of the U.S. economy has given it both the power to degrade the environment around the world and the influence to push diplomatic efforts to protect the environment. For most of its history, the United States has been one of the leading nations in the field of environmental diplomacy, but at the end of the twentieth century the United States found itself more often on the outside, as global discussions produced treaties that were increasingly unacceptable to the U.S. government. This loss of leadership has coincided with a shift away from bilateral treaties, first to small multilateral treaties and then to conventions that are open to every nation. That shift has been a logical reaction to an increasing international awareness that some of the biggest threats to human society come from global environmental problems, but it has meant that the United States has been less able to shape the course of events to its liking.

Environmental diplomacy has almost always been a secondary, or even tertiary, goal of U.S. foreign policy. Simultaneously, though, it is often the product of intense domestic political pressure, as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have done a masterful job of putting their members' concerns on the diplomatic agenda. As such, it usually reflects the primary diplomatic and domestic goals of the time. Hence, in the twentieth century, such trends and policies as progressivism, the Good Neighbor Policy, containment, détente, and environmentalism, as well as the state of the national and world economy, all played crucial roles in shaping specific treaties. In addition, the increase in scientific knowledge as well as public awareness of and faith in that science were crucial elements in shaping the course of environmental diplomacy during the twentieth century. The United States has almost always been a strong proponent of using science as an impartial tool in international environmental protection, particularly in moving away from static treaties to dynamic bodies that can address changing problems. Finally, one must acknowledge that just as there are formal and informal forms of diplomacy, so too are there formal and informal kinds of environmental diplomacy. While the focus here is largely on conventions and treaties, it should be remembered that the sheer appetite of the United States for imported goods created an unintended international environmental impact that might actually be greater than that generated by formal environmental diplomacy.


Bailey, Thomas. "The North Pacific Sealing Convention of 1911." Pacific Historical Review 4 (1935): 1–14.

Benedick, Richard Elliot. Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. A fascinating firsthand account by a U.S. diplomat of international efforts to protect the ozone layer.

Campbell, Charles Jr. "The Anglo-American Crisis in the Bering Sea, 1890–1891." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 66 (1961): 395–410.

——. "The Bering Sea Settlements of 1892." Pacific Historical Review 32 (1963): 347–368.

Carroll, John E. Environmental Diplomacy: An Examination and A Prospective of Canadian–U.S. Transboundary Environmental Relations. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1983. Examines post-1945 issues in transborder pollution and shared resource use from a natural resources perspective.

Chacko, Chirakaikaran Joseph. The International Joint Commission Between the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada. New York, 1968. The best single study of the International Joint Commission.

Dorsey, Kurk. "Scientists, Citizens, and Statesmen: U.S.–Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era." Diplomatic History 19 (1995): 407–430.

——. The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: U.S.–Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era. Seattle, 1998. Analyzes early treaties to protect birds, seals, and fish in North America.

French, Hilary F. Partnership for the Planet: An Environmental Agenda for the United Nations. Washington, D.C., 1995. One of the leading members of the NGO community presents an agenda for future environmental diplomacy.

Hollick, Ann L. U.S. Foreign Policy and the Law of the Sea. Princeton, N.J., 1981.

Innis, Harold A. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. Rev. ed. Toronto, 1978. A classic work in the field that examines the regulation and use of oceanic fisheries.

Levering, Ralph B., and Miriam L. Levering. Citizen Action for Global Change: The Neptune Group and Law of the Sea. Syracuse, N.Y., 1999. Demonstrates the roles of private citizens in shaping UNCLOS III.

Lytle, Mark. "An Environmental Approach to American Diplomatic History." Diplomatic History 20 (1996): 279–300. The first work that any historian interested in environmental diplomacy should read.

McNeill, J. R. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York, 2000. An ambitious synthesis and analysis of modern global environmentalism.

Roos, John F. Restoring Fraser River Salmon: A History of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission, 1937–1985. Vancouver, 1991.

Sand, Peter H., ed. The Effectiveness of International Environmental Agreements: A Survey of Existing Legal Instruments. Cambridge, 1992.

Susskind, Lawrence E. Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating More Effective Global Agreements. New York, 1994.

Tolba, Mostafa K. Global Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating Environmental Agreements for the World, 1973–1992. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. One of the UN's leading environmental diplomats draws lessons from twenty years of work.

Tønnessen, J. N., and A. O. Johnsen. The History of Modern Whaling. Translated by R. I. Christophersen. Berkeley, Calif., 1982. The best single volume on whaling, the whaling commission, and the whaling industry.

Tucker, Richard P. Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. Shows the environmental impact of the U.S. informal empire.

Wirth, John D. Smelter Smoke in North America: The Politics of Transborder Pollution. Lawrence, Kans., 2000. The most valuable interpretation of the Trail Smelter Case and subsequent U.S.–Mexican pollution problems.

Young, Oran R., George J. Demko, and Kilaparti Ramakrishna, eds. Global Environmental Change and International Governance. Hanover, N.H., 1996. A number of political scientists analyze the new trends in environmental diplomacy and their impacts on sovereignty.

See also Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation ; Globalization ; Science and Technology ; Treaties .

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Environmental Diplomacy forum