While there had been a handful of multilateral conservation agreements before 1940, none were so sweeping as that year's Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (CNP). U.S. scientists and conservationists conceived the CNP in the 1930s as a means to spread what they considered to be obvious ideas about conservation. Each nation, they proposed, ought to set aside national parks, national reserves, natural monuments, and wilderness areas, all of which already had been established in some form in the United States. They also thought that each signatory ought to protect endangered species and migratory birds, which revealed the convention's roots in the early conservation movement. The scientists worried, despite the Good Neighbor Policy, that Latin American governments might well suspect their motives. Therefore, at the 1938 meeting of the Pan-American Union, delegates sympathetic to the idea created a study committee of Latin Americans. They came back in 1940 with a draft treaty full of ideas suggested first by the U.S. scientists. The Pan-American Union's official stamp was sufficient to give the CNP legitimacy.
By 1942 nearly every nation in the Western Hemisphere had signed on, even though few of them were in a position to fulfill its terms. There were relatively few scientists in Latin America, few conservation nongovernmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society, and few parks or reserves already established. In the face of these difficulties, only Costa Rica did much to set aside large tracts of land. Even the United States failed to take the convention very seriously, as it did not move to protect endangered species as a group until 1966. Granted, the outbreak of World War II distracted attention from nature protection, but the war also served as a catalyst to sign the treaty as a show of unity and cooperation.
While the CNP was not the first environmental treaty to draw in dozens of countries, it provides an excellent example of the two fundamental difficulties of multilateral environmental diplomacy. First, it is a challenge to coordinate policies for countries with vastly different levels of economic development. Not surprisingly, the United States and Guatemala had very different attitudes toward conservation of land and wildlife, based on differences in industrialization, population, wealth, and landmass. Some citizens of Latin American states suspected that part of the U.S. agenda was keeping their nations in a state of economic subservience, while the U.S. scientists and conservationists who created the convention believed that they were simply passing on the wisdom that they had learned the hard way, as well as ideas that were inherently good in any society. Later in the century, differences among rich and poor societies along the same lines would hamstring other efforts to protect the environment.
Second, enforcement mechanisms are usually the first thing to be dropped from such a treaty. Most governments in the Western Hemisphere were willing to say that nature protection was a valuable goal. Few were willing to be held to any specific promises. None would accept the possibility of penalties for failing to live up to the CNP. This pattern repeated itself for the next sixty years. The rhetoric of environmental protection has been unusually appealing, but few governments will sacrifice their sovereignty over internal resource decisions or forgo the possibility of economic development for the sake of environmental protection. If forced to choose between signing an environmental protection convention with real teeth or risking public censure for failing to sign such an agreement, most governments will take the risk of criticism. If anything, the United States was just as reluctant as any country to risk its sovereignty, even though it often had the least distance to go to live up to its obligations.
The reluctance of the United States to push for strong enforcement mechanisms—and the implications of that policy—can be seen most clearly in the long efforts to control whaling. By the early twentieth century, the vast majority of whaling was confined to Antarctic waters, with whales being caught and then brought back for processing to shore stations in such remote places as South Georgia Island. There whalers could be tightly controlled by licenses issued by the European colonial governments. Two technological innovations in the 1920s, the stern slipway and condensers for producing freshwater at sea, allowed whalers to process whales at sea on large floating factory vessels. Whaling companies in Norway and Great Britain quickly worked out the logistics for expeditions involving a floating factory and up to a dozen smaller whale catchers, which could stay at sea for months at a time, catching whales, processing them for their oil, and then delivering the oil to any port in the world. In short, because they could operate on the high seas and fly any flag they chose, they were extremely difficult to regulate.
In 1931, after two years of discussion, the League of Nations produced the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling as a first step toward international control of the industry. The twenty-six signatories, including landlocked Switzerland, agreed that all whaling vessels would be licensed, that calves and nursing females would be protected, and that they would conduct more scientific research. Despite sponsorship by the suspect League of Nations and the limited nature of U.S. whaling operations, the United States participated in the drafting of the convention, signed it, and ratified it in 1935, all because doing so was an easy way to placate domestic conservation interests.
The 1931 convention did nothing to address the real problem, which was massive exploitation of a finite number of whales. Only a huge glut in whale oil, which was used mainly for margarine, curtailed whaling operations in the early 1930s. In fact, the British and Norwegian whaling companies did more than any government to regulate whaling and save whales by their own private agreements to limit production. The problem was that they could not work with other foreign companies, especially those from Germany and Japan, that were pursuing whaling for national reasons as much as private economic gain.
Over the objections of industry, the United Kingdom and Norway called another conference on whaling in 1937 to craft a tougher convention. They set an open season for Antarctic whaling, created rules for efficient use of whale carcasses, and banned the hunting of certain endangered species. The United States, led by Dr. Remington Kellogg, took an active role, even though U.S. companies contributed only 3 percent to the world's whaling catch. Germany was also an active participant, which was a victory, but Japan refused to abide by the 1937 convention or any of its subsequent protocols. Not only were the signatory nations unable to do anything about Japanese whaling, they faced strong internal pressure from their own whalers who wanted the same freedom from regulation that the Japanese had.
Attempts to rectify the problems of the 1937 convention came to a halt when World War II erupted, and yet the war also played an important role in shuffling the interests of the nations involved in whaling diplomacy. On one hand, Japan and Germany found themselves at the mercy of the victorious Allies. On the other hand, the United States found itself somewhat unwillingly thrust into the position of global leadership. And most whaling ships found themselves on the bottom of the ocean floor. In short, the opportunity was there for a recasting of global whaling operations.
Under Kellogg's influence, the United States, a nation that neither caught nor consumed baleen whales, decided to seize that opportunity. With the reluctant compliance of Norway and the United Kingdom, in the fall of 1946 the United States engineered the writing of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. By 1949 enough nations were on board to create the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which, for all of its flaws, is one of the oldest international bodies with a mandate for conservation. The IWC was a step forward in that it established rules for annual meetings to update whaling regulations, it relied explicitly upon the advice of scientists, and it tightened the restrictions on whalers.
That the IWC failed to conserve whales is more a reflection of the limits imposed on it in 1946 than a reflection of the personal failings of its members. Once again, the drafters chose not to have any mechanisms to enforce conservation regulations. Kellogg had strongly advocated trade sanctions against whaling nations that did not join the IWC, but U.S. diplomats decided that trade policy and conservation issues should not be intertwined. The convention created new problems by giving members the right to object to any amendment to the original regulations and thereby exempt themselves from it. In later years, these two facets would be the target of vehement criticism among environmentalists, but the Department of State insisted on them on the reasonable theory that whaling nations would not join any organization that threatened their sovereignty. In other words, a conservation organization could have clout or members, but not both.
What a whaling commission could have was symbolic value and persuasive powers. In fact, it is clear that those two objectives were high on the list of the U.S. scientists and diplomats who drew up plans for the commission and subsequently defended it during its darkest moments. If nations, including the United States, were unwilling to surrender their sovereignty, they were still willing to listen to other nations' arguments. In fact, scientists counted on their ability to present rational, irrefutable arguments to recalcitrant commission members as the only viable means to build the necessary consensus. Even after it became apparent that persuasion was not going to stop Soviet cheating, Panamanian indifference to inspection, or U.S. efforts to restore Japanese whaling, U.S. and British diplomats supported the IWC as an important symbol that the nations of the world could cooperate in regulating the high seas—there was no need for South American nations to resort to such unsporting institutions as the 200-mile territorial limit in the name of conservation.
The IWC became the scene of some bruising political battles in the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States led a coalition of countries fighting for a moratorium on commercial whaling. By 1972, only three nations had any significant commercial whaling operations: Japan, the Soviet Union, and Norway, and Norway's industry was a mere shadow of its former self. As the surging environmental movement bore the greatest responsibility for pushing the moratorium, it was easy for the United States to support a measure that would hurt only its Cold War opponent and a major economic rival that seemed intent on destroying the U.S. auto industry. After several years of trying to push a moratorium through the IWC, only to see the whaling countries suggest that they would leave the commission rather than accept a moratorium, it became clear that the United States would have to use its own economic power to make any headway. Using the 1971 Pelly Amendment and the 1979 Packwood-Magnuson Amendment, Congress gave the president the authority to place unilateral sanctions on fishing rights of countries that continued to hunt whales in the face of IWC regulations. It is debatable how much impact these sanctions had, but they were at least marginally important in leading to the 1982 decision by the IWC to ban commercial whaling.
While the whaling commission might be the best known example of multilateral environmental diplomacy, it was certainly not the only postwar example of several nations convening to resolve their differences. The 1946 Northwest Atlantic Fisheries agreement was the first of several multinational treaties to regulate pelagic fisheries. Beginning in 1959 there was a series of treaties to regulate and protect the resources of Antarctica, including minerals and marine life. And there have been occasional isolated conventions, such as the 1987 agreement among five northern nations to protect polar bears. In each case, these treaties have brought together a set of countries with a mutual interest in a specific, local resource. Given a reasonably small number of countries with focused interests, the United States has been able to lead consistently.