President Obama signals shift in U.S. foreign policy

President Obama signals shift in U.S. foreign policy

Next week President Obama will personally deliver the historic announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will begin regulating greenhouse gas emissions for all existing U.S. power plants. This is a critical and far-reaching policy development and deserves all of the attention it is already receiving.

However, in a speech at West Point yesterday the President outlined another strategic shift that could have significant, and positive, long term geopolitical implications: placing climate risk and security issues firmly in the center of his vision of 21st century foreign policy.

In his remarks, the President focused on delivering American leadership by building coalitions and supporting a rules-based global regime.

“We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.”

As the President noted, a warming world poses a national security crisis that can only be addressed through better international cooperation, including U.S. leadership to deliver an ambitious international climate agreement following negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris next year. According to the President,

“…what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it is our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”

This was just the latest in a string of recent signs that the tectonic plates of climate politics in the United States are shifting.

Yesterday’s speech follows Secretary of State John Kerry’s first major policy guidance in March, directing State Department staff to prioritize climate change in all operations. These initiatives, as well as the continued leadership of the Department of Defense in pioneering new approaches to manage climate risks, show that the U.S. government is slowly but surely demonstrating that climate change is now indeed a top priority.

These policy developments have been made possible in part by the strong support provided by the most recent scientific research including the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, which concluded that impacts are not just forecasts for the distant future – but are already evident.

The President clearly recognizes that climate change will create hard power problems but has no hard power solutions. At present, however, the level of U.S. ambition in the U.N. and other multilateral venues does not match up with the President’s objectives. Now that he has made climate change a legacy issue, the U.S. will need to raise its game. There will be important opportunities to demonstrate renewed leadership in the coming months, for example at the U.N. Climate Summit in September. But by making the case for mainstreaming climate risk assessment into both domestic and foreign policy processes, he and the members of his cabinet have taken important steps towards building a credible diplomatic approach to delivering a secure and prosperous future.


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