Americas - Issue 28 - Magazine | Monocle

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View from Washington

With the COP15 climate conference looming, ambassadors are becoming lobbyists. They should tread very carefully.

By Sasha Issenberg

Ambassadors are usually adamant about saying they don’t get involved in domestic politics of the countries they are posted to. So American policy makers were surprised to see Nigel Sheinwald, Britain’s ambassador to the US, commemorate the 100-day countdown to COP15, the Copenhagen climate talks, by speaking directly to American voters about the issue. On his website, Sheinwald told Americans their support “is central to this whole endeavour”, as he encouraged them to budge their senators towards action on behalf of Barack Obama’s energy bill before the December summit. “We’ll be watching this closely,” Sheinwald wrote.

Brits are not the only ones seeing a road to Copenhagen that runs through the US. For a year, the Swedish embassy has held climate-centric seminars targeted at Washington policy elites, while the Danish Board of Technology hosted educational events in 39 countries, with a special emphasis on the US. But no foreign ministry has as bluntly targeted the American mass public as Britain’s has – it is appealing to them with 100 daily video messages leading up to the summit. “We thought of doing some outreach and involving people more than the leaders who will be in the room,” explains Brendan O’Grady, a British Embassy official. “It’s a reality of foreign policy and diplomacy these days.”

No one has proven that better than Obama. As a candidate, he audaciously gathered 200,000 Berliners for a campaign rally. When he addressed the Muslim world from Cairo this spring, his State Department translated the text into 13 languages and hired bike messengers to hand-deliver recordings to African radio stations. Obama successfully made America’s international reputation an issue. Last year, for the first time since the beginning of the Iraq war, a ­majority of voters agreed that a lack of foreign ­respect was “a major problem”, according to a Pew Center poll. This year, Pew demonstrated that, under Obama, the nation’s image had ­improved worldwide (except in Israel).

But on his climate bill, Obama has struggled to win over rural and industrial state legislators (including plenty from his own party) who believe that new laws would threaten traditional US business. The imprimatur of prime minister Gordon Brown – bolstered by the persuasive arguments of Danish economist Jacob Funk Kirkegaard – will probably reinforce suspicion.

Now climate-change activists fear Obama has been cowed by domestic opponents eager to portray new energy policy as the result of the US being bullied from abroad. They argue that because of this, he pushed climate issues to the margins in the run-up to the Pittsburgh G-20 and failed to prod Congress into action.

“I do despair with what I think is the administration’s approach to this – not talk about the international dimensions until they really, really have to,” says Andrew Light, who leads the international climate-policy programme for the think-tank Center for American Progress. “Now is the time to take that theme from the campaign, which I think was quite successful, and use it now that he’s president.”

What a state


State on the up: North Dakota.
This frigid state with historically high levels of out-migration is thriving. Boasting the nation’s lowest jobless rate (4.2 per cent) and booming oil, mining and construction sectors, North Dakota is recruiting jobseekers from across the country and offering incentives to companies to relocate there.

State on the down: Florida.
Once a beacon of opportunity, Florida is losing population for the first time in 60 years. The problems are mammoth – it has the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, unemployment at 11 per cent and spiralling property taxes. This autumn legislators may consider lifting a ban on offshore oil drilling to pump up revenues.

Still waiting


The government has been making a lot of noise about its plans to build a high-speed rail link between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo before the 2014 football World Cup. But is it going to happen? The state has yet to decide who will build and operate the 515km, almost €14bn line that would link the two cities, their airports and Campinas.

United we stand


It might have a national spirit built on the backs of enterprising blue collar workers, but the US has one of the lowest proportions of self-employment in the world – only 7.2 per cent of the working population.

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