THE world's leaders have scattered from the diplomatic mountaintop where they acknowledged the importance of protecting the global environment and eradicating poverty. Having made many pledges and a few commitments, most often in the name of children and future generations, the question they leave behind is: Will the promise of the Earth Summit be carried out?
It is a question never meant to be answered definitively at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which closed yesterday in Rio de Janeiro. As in most UN negotiations, consensus rather than majority rule was the working model, which means that the action plan called Agenda 21 is filled with diplomatic ambiguities and less-than-bold steps to be taken. UN directives are voluntary, so the extent to which they will actually effect environmental degradation and the growing gap between rich and poor in the world remains to be seen. (Democracy and environmentalism, Page 3.)
Still, there is a general sense that something momentous has happened in Rio, that what President Bush calls the "new world order" was officially launched - a world in which environment, trade and finance, consumption patterns, and population growth have replaced military might as most important in determining the security of nations. There is also a sense that countries should now shift resources from arms to human development - a global "peace dividend."
British Prime Minister John Major says the summit focus on the need to address such issues will "put peer pressure on governments in every part of the world." German Chancellor Helmut Kohl says a "dynamic process" has begun.
Even many of those who fault the Bush administration's somewhat isolationist stand on issues like climate change, protecting bio-diversity, and targeted goals for foreign aid, say significant progress was made.
"I personally believe that the Earth Summit will be regarded as a great success because of the change of thinking that's taken place here," says Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee, leader of a delegation of United States senators.
John Adams of the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the thousands of private organizations at the summit, calls it "a flawed beginning, but a beginning on a very grand scale."
Among the visible accomplishments here: Most leaders signed the conventions on climate and biodiversity. The "Rio Declaration," a set of lofty principles, remained intact despite reservations on specific issues by many countries. A new UN Commission on Sustainable Development will be established to provide follow-up. A set of "forest principles" was adopted, although this is far less than what many wanted.
While many developed countries (including the US, Britain, Germany, France, and Canada) pledged increased aid for environmental protection around the world, the amounts are not spectacular. The largest contribution apparently comes from Japan, which has offered to increase its environmental aid by $7 billion over the next five years. But there is no general acceptance by the North of the long-standing UN goal of having rich countries annually give 0.7 percent of their gross national products in aid to po orer countries.
"We see this as a long-term target to work for," says a Japanese official. "But it would be difficult for us to achieve by the year 2000."
The question of US leadership on global environment and development was much on everybody's mind. "Most Americans want our country to lead," says Sen. Tim Wirth (D) of Colorado. Mr. Bush insisted that the US "fully intends to be the world's preeminent leader in protecting the global environment."
At the same time, it seems clear that the US must share in that leadership role.
"This is no longer a unipolar world," says US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William Reilly.
For this reason, the meeting next month in Munich of the seven leading industrialized nations (which provide much of the aid to developing countries) takes on greater importance, as does a successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. So, too, do upcoming UN conferences on human rights (1993) and women (1995), as well as the possibility of restructuring the UN on its 50th anniversary in three years.
But for all the talk about trade and tariffs, consumption and population, declining species and dirty air, the most graphic and certainly the most poignant words had to do with people - like those on the small island republic of the Maldives (population 225,000). It is just 6.5 feet above sea level at its highest point and could be wiped out by global warming. "Don't let our voice go unheard," urged President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. "For if you do it, it might be forever."
Or Croatian Prime Minister Franjo Greguric, who ended his speech with the words a nine-year-old girl had written to him: "The earth suffers because so few people love it."