By Rajendra Shende
“Tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan, former Republican President of the US, challenged Mikhail Gorbachev in his speech at Brandenburg Gate, in Germany, exactly this week of June in 1987.
Reagan was speaking next to the iconic Berlin wall. He was referring not only to the brick and mortar wall erected in 1961 by the then communist East Germany with unflinching support from Soviet Union, but also to the ideological firewall that separated an inward-looking, isolated, centralised, socialistic economy from the capitalist West. It was a time when open market globalisation was blazing a trail towards a New World Order.
During his candidacy announcement speech this month in 2015, Donald Trump, also Republican, first proposed the idea of building a real wall along America’s southern border with Mexico. He boasted that due to his real estate experience, he was uniquely qualified for the job.
A little over a year after Reagan ended his tenure, again this month in 1990, the demolition of the Berlin wall officially began and was completed within two years. The open market economy and waves of globalisation started sweeping eastward. Regulations started taking a back-seat and creativity draped in innovation began proliferating.
Trump, in his bid to “Make America Great Again”, has isolated Americans at a crucial time, depriving them of the opportunities offered by a globalising and digitalising world. He is doggedly firm that fulfilling election promises — at any cost — is his urgent priority. His unilateral decisions, without multilateral consultative dialogue, is poised to make a serious impact on the social, economic and environmental fabric of planet Earth.
When the world, in the 1980s, was strengthening multilateralism, the foundation on which the UN was built, Reagan was riding a wave that was demolishing the archaic walls of unilateralism that dotted the globe. Those dots were the unfortunate post-war memorials of the bilateral and unilateral treaties that started the wars in the first place. Reagan, alarmed by the risks to the planet, engaged his administration in negotiations on multilateral environmental agreements.
Reagan’s record on environmental protection at the national level may not be without controversies. As Governor of California during 1967-75, his environmental record was highly appreciated by many, particularly his path-breaking California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
But his first term was marked by “Reaganomics” — tax reduction, economic deregulation, reduction in government spending and an aggressive policy of issuing leases for oil, gas and coal development on tens of millions of acres of national land. Later, in his second term, he signed into law 38 bills that added more than 10.6 million acres of spectacular forests, mountains, deserts and wetlands to the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Trump has a “hate at first sight” relationship with multilateralism, particularly its recent product — the Paris Climate Agreement. That starkly contrasts with Reagan’s consultative and multilateral approach. Trump is wading through unilateral processes by connecting the dots of American job-loss, rise of China and India, and loss of US’ manufacturing base and trying to present the climate change crisis as a diversion from his “America First” slogan.
The multilateral negotiations under the UN held 30 years back to carve out the global environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol, skilfully traded by Reagan in the wake of threats to American industry and jobs, was an extraordinary example of Republican stewardship. The Montreal Protocol was aimed at protecting the life-saving Ozone layer threatened by man-made chemicals. Without Reagan’s leadership, a depleted ozone layer could have resulted in millions of deaths due to skin cancers and other diseases.
More than $125 billion worth of equipment in American supermarkets, buildings, automobiles, electronic instruments and foam blowing relied on the Ozone-depleting man-made chemicals which were proposed for phase-out under the Montreal Protocol were at risk of premature obsolescence when the Reagan administration was negotiating the treaty under the umbrella of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
American chemical industries sold about 100 ozone-depleting chemicals at the time of negotiations. Just one of them — CFCs — was valued at half a billion dollars annually. The value of goods and services from these chemicals was $28 billion every year.
The predicted American job losses due to provisions of the Montreal Protocol were threatening not just base of Republican popularity, gained by Reagan over his two terms, but the very tenets of American superiority and competitiveness. The “hoax” cries against the science of Ozone layer-depletion by human interference echoed all over America, just like what we hear today from the lawns of the White House on climate change.
Reagan, in partnership with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and, surprisingly, USSR President Gorbachev, held a number of informal consultations on the possible options of negotiations of the Montreal Protocol, including financial and technical support to developing and emerging countries like India and China.
Many diplomats have termed the Reagan-Gorbachev summits of 1987-88 that included ozone and climate issues as “Ozone-Glasnost”. Reagan and Gorbachev even collaborated on stratospheric ozone research through joint satellite missions. For the troika, “Planet First” was the slogan.
The Trumpian stance today on Paris Climate Agreement, his alleged cyber space-affair with Russia and his buzzing campaign of “America First”, in comparison to the Reaganian past, appears to be in pitiful defiance of the gravity of the situation.
Thirty years back, Reagan sent the Montreal Agreement for the Senate’s ratification stating that, “In this historic agreement, the international community undertakes cooperative measures to protect a vital global resource of ozone layer.” The Senate approved Reagan’s recommendation unanimously.
Three decades after, Reagan, an actor-turned-politician is remembered as the key contributor to the unique success of the Montreal Protocol, implementation of which averted a global catastrophe.
Wonder how, 30 years from now, Trump, real estate businessman-turned-politician, would be described by historians.
(Rajendra Shende is Chairman, TERRE Policy Centre and a former Director of UNEP. Views are personal. He can be contacted at [email protected])