It is good to have a book on American policy written by a non-American. On so many international issues, not least the environment, the view from the US seems irredeemably parochial. But perhaps Stephen Hopgood, lecturer in international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has bitten off more than he can chew.
His canvas is US policy on international environmental issues from the 1972 Stockholm environment conference through to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and its fallout in the treaties on climate change and biodiversity. His aim is to establish whether the state apparatus has lost control of policy-making to environmental groups and international agencies such as the UN Environment Programme. He concludes that it has not: that "despite the growth in societal interest and expertise, the state still retained a dominant position in the policy-making process".
Well, in the sense that it is governments that vote at international summits and signs up to international conventions, this is true. But Hopgood's study never gets to grips with whether national politicians and their officials still set the agenda for those events. He is too focused on the minutiae of Washington intrigue and the vicissitudes of officials to analyse the forces that drive them. Though not the actual hands on the tiller, Greenpeacers, industry lobbyists and climate scientists may be the real navigators.
He quotes Mark Dowie, author of a book on the recent failures of US environmentalists, as saying that if the environmental lobby was ever to succeed in Washington it was in the first years of the Clinton administration; but it failed. That is just the start, however.
Hopgood is especially myopic on other forces at work influencing the administration. Where is his analysis of the role of those industry-funded lobby groups with their deep pockets and unparalleled access to Congress?
I also looked in vain for signs of interviews with key international players such as Maurice Strong, who ran both the Stockholm and Rio conferences, and who, having operated at all three levels, would have strong views about the interaction between states, NGOs and international agencies.
Equally disappointing is the absence of an examination of the influence of scientists. The climate change convention in particular is a science-led treaty. State-funded US scientists were vital to the development of the international scientific consensus that underpins its measures, while a handful of sceptics, often funded by US industry, have successfully rubbished that consensus. Yet the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change is only the stuff of footnotes here. And the main mouthpiece for the wreckers, the George C. Marshall Institute, gets a single reference.
That said, Hopgood adds some interesting detail to the picture of shambolic progress in US policy-making in the run-up to and during the Earth Summit. The delegation, only agreed three days before departure, arrived ill-prepared and grumpy. But when hard questions arise about motive and who was really driving policy, Hopgood draws back.
"The hard reality is that the Clinton administration was unable to push through an energy tax that would have made its commitment (to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2000) feasible," he says. True enough. But a book that claims to be based on "extensive primary research" should have got further in analysing how this came about.
Fred Pearce has reported on environmental politics for the past decade.
American Foreign Environmental Policy and the Power of the State
Author - Stephen Hopgood
ISBN - 0 19 829259 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 262