The Paris climate agreement was always a bureaucratic trap that threatened U.S. sovereignty and undermined international law. It is a good thing President Trump has pulled us out of it. Other nations will be grateful to the United States in the long run.
Just consider how after nearly two years no one yet knows if the agreement is a treaty containing legally binding obligations or a non-binding resolution containing mere political commitments. The lawyers were just pushed aside on this one. The United Nations (UN) bureaucracy, aided by opportunistic politicians and diplomats, concocted a new kind of agreement no one really understands.
On the one hand, it has some of the characteristics of a non-binding resolution, including characteristically vague open-ended language and moralizing tone, but on the other, it purports to establish binding obligations and deadlines. Its legality is so obscure that even the best international lawyers can’t really make heads or tails of it—even international lawyers who tend to be more liberal than their domestic counterparts were thrown for a loop with this chimera.
Some call it an “agreement.” Others go as far as calling it a “treaty.” Most newspapers, not knowing how exactly to characterize it, just talk about a “deal” or “accord.” All this plays into the hands of bureaucrats.
Ambiguity Erases Self-Government
Bureaucrats love ambiguity. Ambiguity is the humus they need to expand their power. The Paris agreement set up the right mechanisms for bureaucrats to exploit these ambiguities, including a committee of UN experts to oversee how each government implemented its emissions reduction commitments. Like other UN committees, this one will expand its activities into all manner of economic and social policies that were never contemplated when the agreement was drafted, and will pretend its opinions are binding legal obligations on the parties to the Paris agreement. Good riddance.
The United Nations and other international organizations are prime examples of a bureaucracy run amuck to the point of undermining democratic rule and the people’s sovereignty. Multilateral organizations like the United Nations and the European Union are where all bureaucrats aspire to work. The job security and pay are exponentially better than in domestic gigs, even in the wealthiest countries. And the power and influence that comes with a UN or EU job is only matched by the moral smugness it entitles its holders to assume.
Bureaucrats at international organizations have a phenomenal advantage over sovereign states in driving the organizations’ agenda. Diplomats who represent countries generally roll through international organizations for three-year terms, with few exceptions. Bureaucrats, on the other hand, are hired for life.
In other words, delegates barely have the time to get up to speed—and become able to influence the organization’s agenda—before they get shipped off to another post, while the bureaucrats never leave. Moreover, political changes within countries destabilize their international positions and strategies, whereas the permanent bureaucracies rarely change positions.
The Hidden Hands that Rule the World
The UN secretariat, with its nearly 80,000 staff around the world and $50 billion budget, is a global bureaucratic powerhouse. With those numbers and resources, they are more than just the institutional memory of the United Nations, they drive its agenda and determine its outcome. Just compare those numbers to dozens of small UN member states that have a staff of no more than three or four persons in their missions in New York, and not all of them salaried. The situation in capitals is no better for most countries.
Delegates try to keep up with the bureaucracy, but they are always behind the ball. The diplomats are simply outgunned in every fight. The result is predictable, and it is built into the UN system. Nations end up frittering away their sovereignty to unknown, and sometimes unknowable, bureaucrats who are answerable to no one and oversee inscrutable esoteric processes to re-jigger the world’s economy and societies. The level of influence bureaucrats hold over international negotiations is simply astonishing.
UN bureaucrats write the first draft of most resolutions. UN bureaucrats write the reports on which many of these resolutions are based. UN bureaucrats resolve disputes between states once negotiations are underway—by appealing to other UN bureaucrats!
Then, it is bureaucrats who assess the resolutions’ implementation. They decide the premises of every issue and outline solutions before any sovereign state has even considered the issue. Delegates who do not follow the talking points bureaucrats provide, or worse still, who dare to challenge the bureaucrats’ positions, can find themselves reprimanded by their superiors or even out of a job.
It’s Not Just the United Nations, But All Bureaucracy
This mode of governance is not confined to international organizations. From the looks of it, the Trump administration got a taste of the bureaucratic runaround in his first few months in office, especially from the intelligence community.
Most federal bureaucrats voted against Trump in the 2016 election. According to a report in The Hill, 95 percent of contributions from federal workers to presidential candidates in the 2016 election went to Hillary Clinton. The few who did not vote for Hillary likely voted for the president’s opponents in the primaries.
No other nation stands on better ground to defy the international bureaucrats than the United States does. From its founding, the United States has distrusted alien bureaucracies. Article I of the U.S. Constitution places federal power almost entirely in the hands of elected representatives of the people, not in a permanent federal bureaucracy. America’s founders chose this model of governance, as opposed to a continental bureaucratic model, deliberately.
The reason is simple. You can’t vote a bureaucrat out of office. The framers would have balked at giving bureaucrats any oversight on internal U.S. economic and social policies, let alone bureaucrats from other countries. That is why term limits for congressmen were never a good idea and are inconsistent with the founders’ vision.
A semi-permanent class of politicians whose highest aspiration in life is to win elections until they reach senility or decrepitude is far from ideal. But the only real alternative is bureaucrats— unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats who are as well-meaning as they are power-hungry. As gratifying as waving term limits in DC politicians’ faces may be, the ballot box remains the best instrument of democratic retribution, one that bureaucrats are impervious to.
Bureaucrats Are Taxation Without Representation
Imagine an unassailable professional caste of government employees congenially lording over a clueless, unmotivated troupe of new arrivals who don’t understand or are simply uninterested in governing because they won’t be around long enough for it to matter. The few honest representatives of the people trying to catch up with the bureaucrats find themselves sanctimoniously tutored in incomprehensible jargon and bamboozled by procedural foibles at every turn.
This is the sad state of the United Nations and of many democracies where the people’s representatives have abdicated their power to the administrative state. If you’ve ever watched the hilariously true British television series “Yes Minister,” you know exactly what government by bureaucratic rule looks like.
This doesn’t even broach that bureaucrats are usually liberals who believe more government programs and spending will solve all the world’s problems, or how they unscrupulously skirt rules to push their political agenda and block opposing views, at every turn—take, for example, the Internal Revenue Service Tea Party scandal.
Trump sent a powerful message to the international bureaucracy by exiting the climate agreement. Now he must send a powerful message to the federal bureaucracy. Perhaps the administration should look into term-limits for federal bureaucrats rather than politicians. That might just get things moving along nicely for President Trump.