the geneva protocol: a snapshot of the US government’s two-faced environmentalism?

by georgina connah, 3rd year history at LSE

Courtesy of Maxim Shklyaev, source: Unsplash

Courtesy of Maxim Shklyaev, source: Unsplash


International accords are an important tool to show global commitment to preventing a worsening of climate change. Of course, they do not go far enough. Insofar as they change debate, bind governments to some regulations and show that globally the issue is being taken seriously, they are important first steps. The United States throughout the 20th century has often been at the forefront of drafting and shaping these international agreements. A US commitment to tackling climate change can be seen in the signing of the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Accords. However, the United States is often less forthcoming in the ratification process, which would see any agreements signed become genuinely binding to State and Federal Government actions. Neither the Kyoto Protocol nor the Paris Accords have been ratified by the Senate and thus the US continues not to be legally bound by either.

These two recent examples provide a snapshot of a larger problem, the extent to which the US Government is ever bound by the international agreements they are often lead in shaping. Perhaps the earliest example of this in the environmental field is the Geneva Gas Protocol. The Protocol, signed in 1925, bans the use of chemical and biological weapons in war. It was created in response to the devastating effects on individual health and the environment of the mustard gas used in the First World War. The US led efforts to draft the protocol and were one of its first signatories. However, it failed to be ratified due to US security concerns at the time.

Fast forward over 40 years to 1970 and over 70 countries had ratified the protocol. The US remained absent from this list. Meanwhile, the US continued to use herbicides and chemical weapons such as Agent Orange and Napalm in the Vietnam War. These destroyed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives and the thousands of square kilometres of Vietnamese countryside, leaving devastating environmental destruction in their wake. These actions were completely counter to US intentions when drafting the protocol. The lack of ratification had led the US to regress to using tactics which they once decried in the First World War.

Mounting international and domestic pressure from the UN, US Environmental Groups and the Senate led to Nixon’s decision to attempt the ratification of the protocol again in 1971. Nixon’s decision was made with one small but incredibly important caveat, the definition of ‘chemical weapons’ did not include ‘herbicides and other riot control agents’.  This was contrary to UN opinion at the time which had included such agents in their definition of a chemical weapon. This interpretation won a vote in the UN by an overwhelming majority of 70-3, but its three opponents were the US, Portugal and Australia – all countries at the time using herbicides as weapons in long-standing conflicts. The Senate failed to ratify the protocol in 1971 due to this caveat. It took four years, a fragmented military, a loss of Presidential trust in Watergate and a persistent and growing environmental movement, for the executive to ultimately concede and remove this caveat from their understanding of the protocol.

Unlike the present Congress, the failure to ratify this protocol in 1971 was not due to a disbelief in the immense environmental impacts these weapons have. Instead it can be seen as a rejection of Nixon’s very limited definition. In 1971 the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee did not think this treaty went too far, instead that it did not go far enough to protect public health and the environment. Once the caveat was removed the Senate passed the treaty 50 years after its inception – 1975. The protocol, itself is still only a tiny step on the way to preventing further environmental damage from warfare.

In a time where it seems as though Republican policy is increasingly shifting towards ambivalence of climate change or even further towards discreditation and denial, these international agreements are definitely not being ratified because they ‘don’t go far enough’. Currently, there is not a Senate willing to hold an executive to account on the environment as was seen in the 1970s. We cannot afford to wait another fifty years for a progressive enough Senate to ratify, what will then be reasonably outdated protocols, as was the case with the Geneva Protocol. But ratification of any environmental treaty in the era of Trump seems unlikely to happen.

So then if the US is unlikely to ever be bound by them, is there any point in signing these international agreements? I believe clearly there is. Despite the fact the US are not bound by the Paris Climate Accords, Trump still felt it was a significant step to announce his withdrawal from them. The symbolic impact of a signature on these documents is clearly great: Clinton and Obama understood this, signing Kyoto and Paris respectively. One could be cynical and say this approach is two-faced: on the one hand gaining political and international prestige while on the other having full knowledge that, due to the congressional climate, the treaty would almost never become enforceable.

But a signature does have an impact. For administrations like Obama’s and Clinton’s the only way they can show their support in the face of a debilitating Senate is through helping lead and sign these international agreements. This in the end is not intended to be two-faced, but rather a sign-posting for voters as to their intentions for future policy - should they elect enough Democratic senators to the Senate.