TCS Daily

Kyoto and Kellogg-Briand

By Herbert Inhaber - September 17, 2002 12:00 AM

Seventy five years ago, a Frenchman sent a letter to an American. Of the trillions of letters sent in the three-quarters of a century since, none shed as much light on the proposed Kyoto Treaty.

The letter was from Aristide Briand, the French Foreign Minster of the time, to Frank Kellogg, the Secretary of State under Calvin Coolidge. The letter proposed something seemingly simple and yet something profound: The abolition of war. After what was called the Great War of 1914-1918, the horrors of conflict were self-evident and Kellogg-Briand would outlaw those horrors.

After much maneuvering, the major powers, including the US, Germany, France, Britain and its Empire, Japan and many other countries eventually signed K-B in 1928. In the U.S., the treaty was approved by the Senate with only one dissenting vote.

According to one historical record, the powers agreed that, "settlement of all conflicts, no matter of what origin or nature, that might arise among them should be sought only by pacific means and that war was to be renounced as an instrument of national policy."

The treaty apparently had some success in a 1929 dispute between China and Russia. But then it became, like so many treaties before and after: a dead letter. When the Japanese attacked China in the early 1930s., they didn't bother to declare war. So as far as the treaty was concerned, nothing happened.

All of this may sound like an obscure piece of diplomatic history, but it has direct implications for Kyoto. The climate change treaty is also trying to save the world, with the noblest of motives. But past experience, like the Kellogg-Briand pact, shows that good motives are not sufficient. They can actually move the world backwards, as most diplomatic historians agree the K-B treaty did.

The 1928 treaty lacked one little thing: an enforcement mechanism. Once war, declared or undeclared, broke out, there was no way to stop it except appeals to man's better nature. After all, Japan - which was already planning to invade China - looked good to the West as they signed the treaty but clearly had no intention of obeying it.

Some readers will point out that there is an enforcement mechanism in Kyoto. Each country that signs will list all its greenhouse gases, year by year, and announce them to the world. If they don't meet their commitments by the four-year span 2008-2012, they will be punished. But how? The treaty merely says that any excess greenhouse gases that a nation produces will be considered in the second round of negotiations. What these negotiations will produce, if anything, is completely unknown. So Kyoto really doesn't have any credible enforcement mechanism, other than fickle world opinion.

Now consider cheating on a treaty. It was obvious to many in 1928, before the ink was dry, that Japan was planning to cheat by attacking its neighbor. Eventually Germany and Italy did the same. But there can't be cheating on Kyoto, can there? Everything is all above board, isn't it? That a so-called emissions trading scheme will be implemented shows that most signatories realize that if Kyoto is truly implemented, their countries will suffer tremendously. Why not buy emissions credits from depressed countries like Russia and the Ukraine?

At this point, another historical example comes to mind. During our Civil War, a draft was instituted in the North. Wealthy men like J. P. Morgan didn't relish the thought of their brains being blown out in some bloody battlefield. The writers of the draft law allowed substitutes for those drafted. Mr. Morgan, with a few hundred dollars (a fortune in those days, but very little to him), found a substitute. The generals got their men, and Morgan went on amassing wealth.

In the same way, Kyoto signatories, perhaps realizing their folly, are doing their best, by means of emissions trading, to get out of the obligations they so bravely signed up for. If there ever is a second round of negotiations after 2012, and countries really have to bite the bullet with confiscatory taxes on energy sources - after having found out that solar and conservation makes little difference in greenhouse emissions - Kyoto may become a dead letter, like Kellogg-Briand.

If only Kyoto's architects had read their history books, we could have been spared years treading water in the climate change debate.

TCS Daily Archives