An Economist May Have Just Come Up with the Solution George Kennan Said Is Needed to Protect the Earth from Climate Change Disaster

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tags: climate change, George F. Kennan

David Milne is a senior lecturer in modern history at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of America's Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War and senior editor of the two-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of American Military and Diplomatic History. His latest book, just published, is Worldmaking: The Art and Science of American Diplomacy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

On April 4, 1989, George Kennan, the architect of America’s strategy of “containing” Soviet expansionism, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A strong believer in the sincerity of Mikhail Gorbachev’s peaceful intentions, Kennan’s purpose was to perform last rites on the Cold War. “What we are witnessing today in Russia,” said Kennan, “is the breakup of much, if not all, of the system of power by which that country has been held together and governed since 1917.”

During the Q&A, Senator Daniel Patrick Mohnihan (D-NY) invited Kennan to consider what should happen next if the Cold War had ended. “[I]s it not time to give some thought to whether we should now resume in some modified form the Wilsonian project?” Mohnihan suggested hopefully and perhaps a little mischeviously. The senator knew that Kennan was no great believer in Woodrow Wilson’s dream of international collaboration.

“Yes, you are right that I was long skeptical about Wilson’s vision with relation to the time at which it was brought forward,” Kennan replied, “But I begin today… to think that Wilson was way ahead of his time in his views about international organization. You see, just as I feel that the Cold War is now ending, I feel that another great and tremendous problem is growing upon us – or a double problem. One is to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction which are too terrible to be permitted to rest in human hands.... But the other is to face up to the planetary, environmental crisis which is now, if we can believe the scientists, growing upon us… [T]he general lesson of what [the scientists] are telling us is that we have a much shorter time than we think to put things to rights in this planet if our descendants are going to have any sort of a civilized life in it. Now this is to my mind going to require a realization of the dream of international collaboration which Wilson had. I don’t see any other way out of it.

George Kennan’s embrace of Wilsonianism was unexpected, to put it mildly. Kennan was best known as a “classical realist” – someone who believes that all states seeks to maximize power and advantage in an anarchic world system – and he had generally portrayed Wilsonianism in the manner that Homer had depicted the Sirens: an alluring path to destruction. In his classic book American Diplomacy, Kennan situated Wilson’s unrealistic diplomacy in the dangerous tradition of “legalism-moralism,” which he described as “the belief that it should be possible to suppress the chaotic and dangerous aspirations of governments in the international field by the acceptance of some system of legal rules and restraints.” Such plans were destined to fail, wrote Kennan, as “the idea of the subordination of a large number of states to an international juridical regime, limiting their possibilities for aggression and injury to other states, implies that these are all states like our own.”

Yet his response to Moynihan suggested that when the fate of the world is at stake – where every nation possesses a clear stake in the resolution of a potentially existential crisis – Kennan believed that Wilsonian solutions were the only ones fit for purpose. Catastrophic climate change held the potential to end life on earth in the fullness of time. Preventing this scenario unfolding required genuine collaboration; binding rules that compelled all nations to cede some sovereignty in the name of a larger good. If the world did not act together, it would surely perish together.

Any crisis that leads George Kennan to embrace Wilsonian solutions surely merits close examination. Yet a warming planet affects each nation differently, making unified global action difficult to achieve – as previous failed attempts at Kyoto, Copenhagen, and elsewhere have amply displayed. In their book, Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman suggest that one of the gravest impediments to global action along the lines Kennan suggested in 1989 is that some nations have a strong rational incentive to free-ride on the carbon emissions of others: “Why act, if your actions cost you more than they benefit you personally? Total benefits of your actions may outweigh costs. Yet the benefits get spread across seven billion others, while you incur the full costs. The same logic holds for everybody else. Too few are going to do what is in the common interest.”

But there might be another way to channel self-interest in a way that serves a larger environmental good. Earlier this year in the American Economic Review, the Yale economist William D. Nordhaus proposed the establishment of a voluntary “Climate Club” that commits its members to genuinely effective carbon reduction and imposes steep sanctions (such as import tariffs) on those nations that decline membership. The key strength of Nordhaus’s plan is that nations that have previously taken the “free-ride,” will be compelled to join the club for reasons of self-interest, not altruism. The proposal combines necessary Wilsonian multilateralism with a Realist understanding of the baser motivations that drive nations. George Kennan would surely have approved.

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