The Kellogg-Briand Pact and the future of international climate agreements.

A failed treaty from 1928 has lessons for how agreements to address climate change are likely to play out.

Did you know that war is illegal in most of the world? In 1928, international diplomats, led by U.S. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg and French foreign minister Aristide Briand, negotiated a groundbreaking treaty in Paris by which the signatory states renounced war as a means of solving international disputes and provided that all such disputes would be resolved in a “pacific manner.” The treaty had the support of all the major world powers at the time. Within a few months it was signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, China and the Soviet Union. Kellogg, who had been appointed Secretary of State by President Calvin Coolidge, accepted a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, which he shared with Briand. The treaty took effect on July 24, 1929. With a few strokes of a pen, war was outlawed forever. This treaty is still technically on the books. It did not go out of effect when the League of Nations disbanded, which is what happened when all of the major signatories found themselves at war with one another—illegally—10 to 12 years later.

Fast-forward 80 years. This week, COP26 (Conference of Parties) is finishing up in Glasgow, Scotland, trying to come to some sort of international agreement on addressing global warming and its cause, anthropogenic carbon emissions. I wrote earlier about how this conference is and always was doomed to failure. But the politicians still seem committed to going through the motions of trying to come up with some sort of international agreement on carbon emissions. This is, of course, purely political theater. Nothing substantive will come of COP26, just as nothing substantive came of the 25 previous COPs that have been meeting since the early 1990s. International climate agreements are today’s equivalent of the Kellogg-Briand Pact: basically they are pieces of paper with some signatures on them. There’s idealism behind them, but idealism only. No country is willing to sacrifice anything real to achieve a goal they say (loudly) they want to achieve at all costs, which proves that they don’t really want to achieve the goal they say they want to achieve.

The Kellogg-Briand Pact is an instructive historical lesson for looking at climate agreements because it illustrates the very real limitations of the international consensus-building approach to world problems. This approach, which the Kool Aid-drinking diplomats in Glasgow have bought into hook, line and sinker, came directly out of the horrors of World War I (which, incidentally, ended 103 years ago today with the armistice of November 11, 1918, the genesis of Veteran’s Day). With 10 to 20 million dead and France a shell-pocked lunar landscape from the English Channel to the Swiss border, international leaders were rightly appalled by the chaos that had been unleashed in 1914 and upended the entire world order. In this era, World War I, then called “The Great War,” was sometimes referred to as “the war to end all wars.” Kellogg and his contemporaries sought to build an international order based on the shared assumption that the war was too horrible to risk repeating. “Never again!”, they said. “Please sign here.”

This—human remains in the trenches of France, 1918—was the kind of horror that the Kellogg-Briand Pact sought to eliminate from the world. It was a noble calling, but not very effective.

Of course, this approach ignored the very real political realities in European and world politics in the post-WWI era and beyond. Ten years before Kellogg sought to negotiate his great treaty, the political leaders who did control the levers of power in the world met in Paris to hammer out the peace settlement, the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, which showed where their real political priorities lay. The Versailles talks of 1919 were a cynical horse-trading session where national leaders dealt out artificially-created territories like Pokemon cards, satisfying old grudges and new thirsts for conquest (or oil). The hijinx in Paris in 1919 led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, who ultimately wiped his butt with the Versailles Treaty and unleashed a new war of greed, conquest and genocide. Kellogg-Briand was not even a speed bump on the road to World War II. It was widely mocked even on its inception. Neither of its chief authors lived to see its failure. Briand died in 1932, Kellogg in 1937.

The problem with Kellogg-Briand is exactly the same as the problem with international climate agreements, starting with the Framework Convention signed in 1992, the Kyoto Protocols of 1997, the Paris Accords of 2015 and whatever vacuous treaty will come next. These agreements put nothing real on the table. What is the value of a country saying, “Yes, we hereby agree to reduce our emissions X% by 2030”? About the same as Germany or Japan, in 1929, saying, “Yes, we hereby renounce war as a tool of international policy.” Most of the countries that are meeting in Glasgow this week, and telling us how much they want to tackle climate change—especially the United States—continue to subsidize fossil fuel production whether explicitly or implicitly. Just as Kellogg-Briand did not result in the removal of a single tank or airplane from any of the major powers’ arsenals of weapons, climate agreements have not shut down a single coal plant or put a single oil company executive in prison. It goes beyond the lack of an enforcement mechanism, which is a legalistic argument—indubitably true, but also missing the point. Even an enforcement mechanism wouldn’t do any good if we continue to believe that we can, or should, trust individual nations to keep their word on anything.

International agreements do work some of the time—when the political and economic stakes are low. For example, the Montreal Protocol of 1987, the United Nations treaty that committed member countries to phasing out ozone-depleting CFC gases, was successful. So are international agreements aimed at eradicating diseases with vaccines or increasing economic investment in underdeveloped countries. But the pain these agreements inflict is extremely minor. By 1987 CFCs were obsolete in most parts of the world. Food aid and vaccine programs are relatively cheap and cost-effective, when measured against the immense benefits they confer with relatively little effort. There’s little political downside to observing them.

On December 7, 1941, Japan, a country that signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, attacked the United States, a country that also signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact. This is how effective the treaty wound up being.

By contrast, the economic and political pain of actually phasing out the fossil fuel industry in order to save the climate will be immense, enormous and alarming. It will plunge millions in the developed world into poverty and starve economically powerful nations of their revenue base. It will result in the wholesale junking of vast amounts of expensive assets, from oil refineries to cargo ships, and permanently end the availability of many consumer products across the world. It will scramble the world’s geopolitical relationships, decimating the influence of old powers and bringing new ones to the forefront. It will mean the end of political regimes, whether through democratic processes or violent revolutions, which will lead to instability and war. It will mean throwing the entire basis of how human beings have run the world for the last 150 years into the air and seeing where the chips land. That is what reversing global warming means. Please sign here to own this glittering rosy future.

Just as no world leader or party politician with an even passing understanding of realpolitik would seriously stake their own or their country’s future on the Kellogg-Briand Pact, no leader or politician today will stake the same on climate action. Talk is cheap, as COP26 is demonstrating. But even a tiny and temporary cost—like ending fossil fuel industry subsidies—is far too much to ask of anyone in a position of power. “I’ll sign, but only if it won’t cost me anything.” That’s how cheap talk is in the realm of climate change.

Some legal and diplomatic historians have argued that the Kellogg-Briand Pact wasn’t a total cock-up. It did, for instance, provide some of the legal basis for trying captured German and Japanese leaders for war crimes in the years after World War II; one of the crimes charged at Nuremberg was “crimes against peace” of which several top Nazis were convicted. The toilet paper climate treaties of today might end up in a similar place, eventually. In the aftermath of the ghastly world-shredding conflict over climate change that I believe is historically inevitable, it may be, in some future time, that former oil company executives or political leaders who bowed to the fossil fuel industry might be put on trial for crimes against humanity, and the spirit of the Kyoto and Paris Accords will be mentioned in the legal briefs mustered to condemn them. I guess that’s not nothing, but it would be much better if the treaties being signed now actually reflected the priorities of their signatories, instead of being dead letters that might someday be revived when it comes time to hang someone for letting the planet burn.

For 30 years now politicians have had their chance to do something about global warming. They haven’t lifted a finger in all of that time. Why would they start changing course now? A paper with the signatures of world leaders on it, pledging to reduce carbon emissions, is worthless. The proper place for the Kyoto treaty or the Paris Accords is at the bottom of a bird cage. This is the sad reality of international cooperation on climate change.

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