Explaining the Rise and Evolution of Universal Participation


At first glance, and without further evidence, the dynamic nature of participation requirements—the transition to universal participation in the ozone depletion, the lock-in of universal participation in the early climate change negotiations, and the evolution of universal participation in the recent climate change negotiations—may not appear to require a norms-based explanation. Of course, global environmental problems require global (read universal) participation in efforts to solve them. After all, the sources and consequences of these dilemmas are worldwide in scope, and as observer after observer has noted, these problems cannot be solved by the actions of individual states. And, of course states will have divergent understandings of participation—they have different interests, different power, and different ideas.

In addition, as others would argue, there has been a clear, broad commitment to universal participation across many issues on the world political stage—universal participation is not a new phenomenon. The United Nations system, the GATT/WTO system, the Law of the Sea, all exhibit universality in participation. Large-scale multilateral approaches to international/global issues abound. However, the commitment to universal participation in the ozone depletion and climate change issues requires a deeper look. The context of multilateralism is crucial but indeterminate in this case, as this context was constant throughout the ozone depletion and climate change negotiations, yet we see two transitions in participation requirements.

Ironically, though universal participation is understood to be an obvious choice, traditional approaches to world politics cannot account for it, and further, they cannot account for the evolution in this obvious choice. Universal participation was not the only way to define ozone depletion in 1988, nor was it the only way to define climate change in 1990. Existing notions of universality notwithstanding, ozone depletion and climate change could have been defined in any number of less than universal ways, as have many "global" issues. The necessary task is thus to explain why this particular understanding or norm rose to prominence in these particular issues. This is especially important given how fundamentally ideas of universal participation have influenced the course of the international community's efforts to address ozone depletion and climate change as well as how those ideas have begun to change.

In this chapter, I first make the case that universal participation has become conventional wisdom regarding global environmental problems. I then demonstrate that even though there is consensus that global environmental problems require universal participation—to the point that it is no longer even questioned—there are no satisfactory explanations for why global environmental problems require universal participation extant in the literature. This is extremely troubling for two reasons. First, because participation requirements decisively influence governance processes and outcomes, leaving them unexplained leads to deficient explanations of governance. Second, when "obvious" participation requirements are left assumed, rather than examined, we lose the ability to explain change in those requirements—a deficiency highlighted by the evolution in participation in the 1990s and the subsequent change in governance processes. I address three potential alternative stories of the commitment to universal participation in depth and demonstrate their inability to account for the rise of current conventional wisdom. I also highlight their subsequent difficulty accounting for the evolution of universal participation.


In academic treatments, universal participation has become an accepted necessary factor in regime building.1 Downs et al. claim that the acceptance of universal participation as necessary is a hallmark of the "transformational" approach to regime design.2 This approach is based on the idea that participating in a regime can transform the states that join, and that the regime will thus grow stronger over time. Inclusive, broad participation is thus a major prescription because it ensures the support of all relevant actors, mitigates the occurrence of free riding, facilitates the deepening of commitment through building community pressure, and legitimates the entire process of negotiation.3

According to Downs et al., the popularity of the transformational approach has led to wide acceptance of the notion that negotiations need to include all parties that have a part to play in the issue at hand. As Oran Young and George Demko argue, "[T]he exclusion of relevant players or issues can result in the establishment of regimes that soon become dead letters."4 In addition, Peter Haas cautions that "widespread representation of relevant parties is necessary for negotiations to be regarded as legitimate and for countries to be willing to comply with the ensuing regime."5 Adherents to the transformational approach thus justify their call for broad participation for both practical and normative reasons. Noninclusive agreements with narrow participation are less likely to succeed and they are less legitimate (which is also a consideration in the probability for success). It should be noted that the studies proclaiming the inherent value of universal participation were undertaken after universal participation had already become the dominant modus operandi in environmental negotiations. These studies did not question why universal participation came about, but rather justified it post hoc.

In the policy world, the universal participation requirement achieved even greater acceptance and became immune to challenge. This was certainly the case in the United States. Frederick Bernthal, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of climate change in the late 1980s, claimed that no other options (other than universal participation) were even discussed when the United States began to address the issue.6 The United States pressed this issue internationally as well. At an early climate change negotiating session, the United States argued in a draft framework convention, that the final document must "stress the need for all nations to participate in any international responses to climate change, in accordance with the means at their disposal and their capabilities . . . "7 The United States was not alone in this conviction. According to a State Department analysis of the FCCC negotiation process, "at the outset of negotiations, it was widely agreed that the Convention should strive for as broad participation as possible, including from among developing countries."8 Germany, France, and Britain all stressed notions of universal participation in their draft climate change conventions.9 Universal participation was the only option discussed for the FCCC—in terms of both negotiation and implementation.

Everyone understood from the outset that climate change required universal participation and no one questioned the transition from North-only participation to universal participation in the ozone depletion negotiations. Because everyone understood this, it is rarely questioned. Why did the United States and the international community lock in around universal participation in the run-up to climate change? Curiously, potential explanations found in international relations theory that explain participation levels with arguments about efficiency/ effectiveness, the scientific characteristics of the issue at hand, or the strategic behavior of the most powerful actor involved all fail to provide satisfactory explanations.


On first inspection, the transition to and lock-in around universal participation is immediately surprising because such a commitment explicitly contradicts the expectations of the positive political economy literature. The drive for inclusive negotiations and especially the overwhelming consensus of those involved that climate change had to be addressed via universal negotiations flies in the face of revered rational choice findings about large-scale negotiations. Rational choice and neoliberal institutionalist scholars have long claimed that the larger the negotiations, the more complicated they become and the less chance there is to achieve cooperation.10 Much of the neoliberal institutionalist enterprise on regimes is founded on the importance of small numbers (or K-groups).11 Miles Kahler notes, "Neoliberal skepticism about multilateralism emphasizes the obstacles to cooperation in groups with large memberships. Any advantages of multilateralism pale when compared with the apparent inefficiencies of such a cumbersome system of rule creation and governance."12 According to rational choice, broad participation makes for difficult negotiations.13

Further, both empirical and formal analyses find that negotiations with broad participation often lead to ineffective agreements. According to Downs et. al., agreements that are constructed through a "strategic" approach (i.e., inclusiveness is much less of a concern) "vastly outperform transformational agreements with regard to the depth of cooperation achieved today."14 In addition, strategically constructed agreements with initially low participation are able, "contrary to transformationalist predictions, to expand their membership to include the ranks of previously excluded states."15 Even Peter Haas (a proponent of the transformational approach) calls for research on "starting small" and building up. He argues that "future research should focus on alternatives to negotiation including a large number of parties and assess the advantages and disadvantages of beginning negotiations with some subset of the interested players (perhaps even surrogates for some parties) and gradually drawing increased numbers of players into the process."16

Rational choice expectations about efficiency and starting small were in some ways borne out. The governance of ozone depletion (especially the Montreal Protocol and London Amendments) took place in exactly this kind of incremental process with great success. The Montreal Protocol and its amendments is the exemplar of global environmental agreements. James Sebenius advised that the same should be done for climate change.17 The ozone depletion negotiations and the Montreal Proto col itself, an obvious source of precedent for climate change, began as a small agreement that expanded.

Rational choice does not explain, however, why climate change began with universal participation. In fact, Sebenius, writing when the climate change negotiations were just being conceived, argued that a small, expanding agreement would be the best course to follow.18 He cautioned against inclusive negotiations, arguing, "It would be a very time-consuming mistake for climate change negotiators to create a universally inclusive process with respect to both issues and participants, together with the requirements of consensus on an overall package deal."19 True to rational choice theorists' expectations, the climate change negotiations have been more problematic than those for ozone depletion.20

We know from rational choice that large negotiations are clumsy and often produce ineffective agreements. While the proliferation of universal negotiations has led some scholars to search for the merit in large number negotiations, the rational choice arguments about the efficiency and effectiveness of small-scale negotiations remain relevant. The United States and international community's lock-in around universal participation cannot be explained through rational choice—universal participation was not the most efficient or effective means for negotiating.


In rationalist approaches to environmental negotiations, the "identity of the participants is known at the outset and fixed during the course of negotiations," and "the alternatives or strategies available to the parties are fully specified."21 This "knowledge" is usually derived from the characteristics of the issue at hand. Perhaps then, the United States and the rest of the international community had to undertake the apparently inefficient/ineffective universal participation requirement because of the characteristics of climate change itself. Academics and policymakers alike stress the complicated and ubiquitous nature of climate change and note that in the middle of the twenty-first century, the South will surpass the North in emitting greenhouse gases.22 The sources of greenhouse gases are omnipresent in both the North and the South, and the effects will be felt globally (if not equally felt). Rowlands notes, "A shift in temperature and precipitation patterns would have consequences for all of the planet's inhabitants. Therefore, global involvement is once again crucial."23

Climate change is somewhat different from ozone depletion in this manner. In ozone depletion, the sources of the emissions were limited, as were the economic sectors contributing to the problem. In climate change, every economic sector contributes to the problem (agriculture, forestry, industry, electrical generation, transportation), and the sources of emissions are everywhere. It is easy to extrapolate these characteristics of the climate change problem to questions of the design and requirements for the negotiations and put forward the claim that climate change had to be addressed through universal negotiations. Both the South and the North had to be present at the table from the outset because of the nature of the problem. As Oran Young argues, "there is no way to check global warming without the active participation of the developing countries."24

There are three problems, however, with relying on problem characteristics to determine participation requirements. First, explanations based on the characteristics of ozone depletion and climate change usually turn to "science" to discern the relevant characteristics that justify a level of participation. However, as Karen Litfin makes abundantly clear, science does not provide policymakers with information that enables them to make unbiased, objective policy.25 An interesting statement from U.S. Congressman Boehlert during a hearing on ozone depletion further supports Litfin's thesis:

Thank you Dr. Watson. You are a scientist, and it is important to get some scientific input here. I might add, parenthetically, that when scientists agree with the position I have stated I applaud them, and when they don't, I think they are wrong. That's the way we operate on Capitol Hill.26

Science is actually made up of multiple and often-contradictory discourses and thus "it" cannot provide natural or obvious definitions for environmental problems or answers to questions of participation and ac-tions.27 Science certainly informed the negotiating process in both ozone depletion and climate change, highlighting the global scope of the problems. However, scope information alone does not explain participation requirements. If this were the case, then the scientific information confirming that the ozone depletion problem was global in scope should have produced universal negotiations well before 1988. The scientific information produced before 1987 was viewed with North-only participation in mind—the accepted participation requirements/definition of the problem shaped how scientific information was viewed and used to define the issue. Scientific information is always viewed through sociohistorical lenses and it is these lenses that define and determine definitions, not the information itself.28 As Meyer et al. claim, "The point is that no matter how dire or widespread, environmental problems do not automatically generate organized solutions nationally or internationally."29 The solutions for and even the definitions of the problem instead result from historical and political processes.

Second, and related to the first, if ozone depletion is more limited, why did the participation requirements change from North-only to univer sal? At the height of the governance activities surrounding ozone depletion (1987-1990), CFC production was restricted to seventeen companies.30 Science certainly informed the international community of the global scope of the problem and provided crucial information throughout the governance process—its role should not be downplayed. But the key point is that science does not determine participation. It does not provide an objective basis for deciding who participates. Scientific information is used in a political process and it can be used to justify a number of participation requirements. We cannot look to science to explain the transition from North-only to universal participation in the governance of ozone depletion.

Finally, science is also indeterminate in the climate change issue, even though climate change is more obviously a global problem with global causes and consequences. Science cannot explain the lock-in around universal participation observed in the early governance of climate change. While India and China are certainly important players, it is not clear, given the characteristics of climate change, that all or even most of the South had to be involved from the very beginning of the negotiating process. In fact in 1990, the United States, the EU, Japan, the USSR, China, and India accounted for almost three-quarters of the energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide and even without China and India, the remaining four accounted for more than 60 percent.31 Though it was not discussed as a serious policy option at the time, in hindsight even U.S. officials close to the negotiation and policy process are willing to admit that the problem could have been (or could be) addressed if six to seven key states got together.32 William Nitze, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, explicitly argued, "Frankly if you had the US . . . the Annex I countries33 plus China and India, then you have enough critical mass [to deal with climate change]."34

There is no question that climate change presents both problems and consequences that span the entire globe. The question is whether the characteristics of the problem itself determined a universal course of action in 1991. The scientific characteristics of the climate change problem could have determined or been used to justify a range of potential courses of actions. The scientific characteristics of the climate change problem were (are) just as conducive to a process of incrementally growing participation (as happened in the ozone depletion negotiations) as they were (are) to universal participation. The characteristics of the climate change problem certainly did not force a commitment to universal participation.


Universal participation was not rational (strictly speaking), nor was this commitment necessitated by the scientific characteristics of the problems.

A third alternative story stresses the influence of powerful actors in shaping governance processes.35 Realist or hegemonic analysis is rarely applied to "low" political concerns such as global environmental politics, but the logic of the analysis can certainly inform an explanation of a transition to and lock-in around universal participation. The explanation is simple—the strategies and interests of powerful actors determine participation requirements and their evolution.

Perhaps, then, universal participation emerged and locked in because of U.S. strategic maneuvers. The United States was and remains unquestionably the most important single actor in both the ozone depletion and climate change issues. Beyond its general status as hegemonic power,36 the United States was the largest single producer of CFCs37 and the United States alone accounts for 20-25 percent of the greenhouse emissions at the root of the climate change problem.38

Further, the U.S. was not (and remains not) interested in taking strong internationally binding actions to address climate change in the early 1990s. Thus, drawing again on the rational choice literature, it is initially plausible that the U.S. commitment to universal participation was a strategic maneuver designed specifically to stall the climate change negotiations. Given what is known (from some theoretical perspectives) about the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of large-scale negotiations, calling for universal participation could have been a brilliant strategic move to disrupt, slow, or even derail the negotiations. Stephen Seidel has opined that Southern participation may have been called for as a deliberate roadblock.39 Given a preference for impeding significant action, it would certainly make rational sense for the United States to call for universal participation if it knew that universal participation would slow or stall the negotiations. From this viewpoint a rational course of action would be to call for universal participation and then refuse to give developmental aid—this would be the best roadblock for negotiations as it would introduce Southern actors into the negotiations, while also denying the "carrots" that could induce their cooperation. In fact, though the United States committed to giving financial and technological assistance, it is often criticized for giving too little.40

There are, however, a number of problems with this story of participation. First, it still cannot explain the transition to universal participation observed in the ozone depletion negotiations. The United States was a leading state in the fight to solve ozone depletion—it had no interest in slowing or stalling these negotiations.41 In addition, the United States was not the actor responsible for pushing universal participation in the governance process for ozone depletion. In fact, the United States came to accept universal participation in ozone depletion rather late in the game.

Second, the strategic hegemon perspective cannot explain the lock-in around universal participation in the early 1990s. In fact the causal arrows are reversed. The idea of universal participation was understood from the very beginning and shaped U.S. strategy. U.S. climate change strategies for delay and denial did not pre-date an understanding of climate change as requiring universal participation. While the idea that the United States used universal participation to slow the negotiations (even though the United States still committed to development assistance) is attractive and fits with the avowed U.S. commitment to defeat binding measures, it is not clear in the empirical record that the United States used universal participation as a strategy. Rather, the understanding of universal participation shaped and served as the foundation for subsequent U.S. strategy.42 Five observations highlight the flaws in this perspective on participation

• There is no evidence that officials in the United States consciously chose universal participation in the climate change negotiations. Instead, it appears that administration officials began with a definition of climate change as requiring universal participation before any deliberation about strategy or even U.S. preferences in the climate change issue took place.

• There is evidence that all relevant officials within the United States, both those dedicated to taking significant actions and those dedicated to defeating binding measures, agreed that universal participation was crucial.43

• The United States was committed to the principle of development assistance from the very beginning of the negotiations, a commitment that would blunt any universal participation strategy to stall the negotiations.

• Though the United States advocated universal participation, it was not necessarily the leader on this aspect of the climate change issue. The United States as hegemon did not set the participation agenda. States around the world already accepted the need for universal participation and the United States did not have to pressure (or even encourage) other states to participate.

• Outside the United States, states that were pushing for a strong agreement on climate change were also convinced that addressing climate change required universal participation.

Rather than being a strategic choice, the evidence illustrates that universal participation was taken for granted by everyone involved.44


Of course, the transition to universal participation and lock-in around it are not the only aspects of participation in these governance activities that need to be explained. The 1990s saw an evolution in universal participation that was at the foundation of a crucial debate in the climate change negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol (and beyond)—a debate that culminated with the U.S. withdrawal from the Kyoto process.

As noted in chapter 1, although all participants understood that climate change required universal participation, they did not all agree on what this meant. Europe and the Southern states tended to view universal participation to mean universal participation in the process of negotiation while the Northern states would take the first concrete actions. The United States and some others claimed that universal participation meant universal participation in commitments as well as negotiations. Just as the notion of universal participation itself shaped the ozone depletion negotiations post 1987 and the FCCC negotiations, so too would this contestation over universal participation shape the governance of climate change in the 1990s and early 2000s. The question remains, however, can the perspectives noted above (rational choice, science, hegemony) explain the evolution?

The short answer is no. In the case of rational choice, neither side of the universal participation debate meets the criteria of an efficient and effective means of negotiation. Universal participation is still at the foundation of both the North-first and universal commitment perspectives on participation. Both of these alternatives contain within them the notion that all states should participate in governance activities—both call for large-scale negotiations and collective action.

Science is similarly unable to explain the evolution. The science of climate change did not change significantly, yet participation requirements were contested.45 In fact, each side used "science" to push its own understanding of participation. In advocating common but differentiated responsibility, the United States drew upon the scientific estimates that Southern contributions to the problem would outpace Northern contributions in the twenty-first century. In advocating North-first, the Southern states and Europe called upon scientific understandings of the historical responsibility for the problem. Once again, science informs governance, but is indeterminate in terms of specific requirements.

Finally, the hegemonic explanation for participation requirements does provide some understanding of the evolution of participation. Certainly the universal commitment interpretation is in line with U.S. desire to, at the very least, share the costs of combating climate change, and ideally to scuttle any serious climate change efforts altogether. However, the fact that the United States is almost entirely alone in its interpretation and that it has had no followers out of the Kyoto process underscores the weakness of the hegemony argument. The most important player has pulled out of the process in large part because of (or at least justified by) its interpretation of universal participation, and the most of the rest of the world has continued on with a different interpretation. Of course, hegemony may win out in the end. The U.S. pullout could signal the death knell for multilateral approaches to climate change—it is too early to tell. However, even if that is the case, the hegemony perspective is still a flawed explanation. U.S. strategy, even in pulling out of Kyoto, was shaped by a universal participation norm—the United States still views climate change as requiring universal participation. The hegemony perspective cannot help us to understand why.


International relations theories often treat the level of participation in a negotiation as a wholly unproblematic issue. Everyone knows who should be there. Before 1987, everyone knew that ozone depletion was a global problem that required only Northern participation. After 1987 everyone knew that ozone depletion required universal participation. By 1990 everyone knew that climate change required participation. After 1995, what everyone knew was contested. Observation tells us that there is a great deal of variation over time in what everyone knows. In addition, what everyone knows about participation has significant influence over what everyone does in the governance of these issues. Thus, we cannot take participation for granted and we must explain why states understood participation as they did.

What the above demonstrates is that the dynamic participation requirements were not derived from the dictates of rational choice in committing to universal participation. They were not driven by scientific necessity, either. Finally, the hegemonic interests and strategy do not explain the changes over time.

Given the failings of these other perspectives, I pursue a social con-structivist explanation for the emergence of universal participation in the ozone depletion negotiations, its lock-in in the early climate change negotiations, and its evolution in the more recent climate governance activities. Deciding on appropriate actions and even who should be at the table to address a problem is always a contentious process, not objectively informed by the characteristics of a problem, or decided through strategic choices. Obvious definitions are constructed notions and must be understood within a historical context.46 Rather than obviously or naturally defining these issues, universal participation came to define ozone depletion and climate change (and other global environmental problems) through a historically contingent, path-dependent process of social construction. Crucially, this same path-dependent process continued beyond the signing of the FCCC in 1992, and explains the evolution (contestation over the meaning of universal participation) observed throughout the 1990s up to the present.

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