For more than 30 years, the nations of the world have been getting together regularly to work for progress on fighting poverty and protecting the environment. The challenges are enormous. The philosophical differences over causes and solutions are vast. The politics involved are highly complicated.
Another round in this series of world summits begins next week in South Africa. What's different this time is that the United States more than ever is looked to as the leader in this effort. And more than ever the US is seen by many others as standoffish, if not obstructionist.
The meeting in Johannesburg, expected to draw some 50,000 participants, including about 100 heads of state, is a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to growing public awareness and government intervention, the fundamental indicators of human well-being have improved in some ways over the past decade. But the main issues climate change, deforestation, clean water, desertification, poverty have not gone away. And in some ways, they have become worse, with increasing population and growing rich-poor disparity.
The issues are basic: Grain production per capita is down for the past three years, due largely to rising temperatures and falling water tables that may be tied to environmental degradation. Population is growing faster than food supplies in most developing countries. (Some 78 million more people inhabit the planet every year, almost all in the developing world.) More than 1 billion people are without clean water or adequate sanitation. Two billion people are living on less than $2 a day.
"There is a real sense of urgency," says United Nations Undersecretary-General Nitin Desai, who will chair the summit. "In many cases, we are talking about slipping back."
The buzzword is "sustainable development" generally defined as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." But there's more to it than improving personal income while saving the whales.
"Sustainable development is a compelling moral and humanitarian issue," Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington recently. "But sustainable development is also a security imperative. Poverty, destruction of the environment, and despair are destroyers of people, of societies, of nations, a cause of instability as an unholy trinity that can destabilize countries and destabilize entire regions."
One statistic is stark evidence of Secretary Powell's warning: 5 million people die every year from causes linked to polluted water and air. Another figure shows the difference between the developed and developing world: An American whose income is in the bottom 10 percent of all US residents still is better off than two-thirds of the rest of the world.
Since Rio, two important things have impacted international relations, and these could effect the outcome in Johannesburg. First is the rise of economic globalization and consumer capitalism as a powerful and highly contentious issue spawning sometimes-violent protests at world trade meetings. Second, worldwide shock over last year's terrorist attacks in the United States has been followed by growing unease over what the US war on terrorism could bring.
Neither of these things is likely to help promote a sense of trust and expansiveness necessary for long-range global agreements designed to help the poor and protect the environment. Furthermore, both focus attention on the world's lone superpower more than ever.
How the US is participating
President Bush promises that "the US delegation will come to Johannesburg with concrete and practical proposals." At a UN development summit in Monterrey, Mexico, in May, Mr. Bush pledged to increase US development aid 50 percent to $15 billion a year, and the US recently donated $500 million to the UN Global Environmental Facility.
Still, Bush will not be present at the Johannesburg summit. Instead, he's sending Powell as head of the US delegation.
This puts him at odds with some of his closest buddies among world leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is touting his attendance at the summit, and Mexico's President Vicente Fox will urge the US to sign the Kyoto treaty on global warming.
Bush's decision last year to withdraw from the Kyoto process, whereby nations have pledged to reduce the greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change, is part of an administration pattern that extends to the broader issues being discussed next week. The president resists international agreements on issues covered by the summit, especially if they include "targets and timetables" to meet specific goals. Instead, he's pushing for "partnerships" over which the US has control particularly over anything that costs considerable money or could significantly hamper US industries.
The administration also stresses the importance of democracy and capitalism in solving global problems.
"Self-governing people prepared to participate in an open-world marketplace are the very foundation of sustainable development," says Paula Dobriansky, US undersecretary of state for global affairs and a member of the US delegation to Johannesburg. "President Bush has emphasized that the hopes of all people, no matter where they live, lie in greater political and economic freedom, the rule of law, and good governance."
Bush's stance has caused much grumbling among environmentalists, who see his refusal to go to next week's World Summit on Sustainable Development as a major failure of US leadership.
"The reality is, if you look at the last 30 years, US leadership has been absolutely critical on the global environment," says Jacob Scherr of the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.
For their part, Bush's conservative supporters are delighted that he's staying home. For example, a coalition of free-market organizations headed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington recently applauded Bush for deciding not to attend the summit. "Even more than the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the Johannesburg Summit will provide a global media stage for many of the most irresponsible and destructive elements involved in critical international economic and environmental issues," the group wrote to Bush. "Signing more treaties and creating more international bureaucracies does not address the shortcomings of existing treaties and organizations."
Obviously, that is not the view of those who see such gatherings as a key way to address global problems.
"Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, we are still far from ending the economic and environmental marginalization that afflict billions of people," says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "Despite the prosperity of the 1990s, the divide between rich and poor is widening in many countries, undermining social and economic stability."