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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Smokestack Diplomacy: Cooperation and Conflict in East-West Environmental Politics, by Robert G. Darst. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press (2001), xii, 300 pp.


Reviewed by Barbara A. Cellarius , Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale, Germany.


With the fall of the Berlin Wall, disintegration of the Soviet Union, and subsequent end of the Cold War, environmental issues in former socialist bloc countries have received considerable attention from scholars in many disciplines. The reasons for this are many, including increased access both to archives and ordinary people (at least in some countries), interest in the aftermath of the Cold War and the 'transition' from socialism, and increased contact with and influence of the West in such countries. A recent contribution to this literature is Smokestack Diplomacy, the latest book in the MIT Press's series on Global Environmental Accord: Strategies for Sustainability and Institutional Innovation. In it, Robert Darst, a political scientist, analyzes transnational efforts to promote environmental protection in the USSR and five successor states (Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) from the late 1960s to the late 1990s. In analyzing changing strategies and levels of success, he focuses on three issues — nuclear power safety, transboundary air pollution, and pollution of the Baltic Sea marine environment.

The study is driven by what Darst calls a "profound paradox" (p. 2): the greatest enthusiasm for East-West environmental cooperation occurred in the second half of the 1980s — that is, during the Cold War — instead of during the 1990s, as one might expect. Instead, the 1990s situation is described as being characterized by confrontational smokestack diplomacy. In the author's view, the key to this paradox is "instrumental manipulation of external environmental concerns" (p. 3) — in other words, the manipulation of Western concerns about transboundary environmental problems by the (former) USSR in order to advance other goals. These goals changed over time from largely political ones, and particularly promoting an image of cooperativeness, during the Cold War to a more economic goal of generating funding for economic development and the amelioration of internal environmental problems (e.g., through plant modernization or replacement) in the post-Cold War period. The latter is made possible by what the author calls transnational subsidization, in which Western governments offer financial support for the desired pollution reductions. This, in short, is the central argument of Smokestack Diplomacy.

In a brief discussion of methodology, the reader learns that the book is based on extensive field research, including more than 150 interviews with diplomats, government officials, scientists, and environmental activists, particularly between 1990 and 1995, supplemented by press reports, government reports, and documents from international organizations. The author lived in the (former) USSR from 1990 to 1992, but does not specify whether this was for this project, nor whether he conducted interviews in the local language. He is candid, however, about the fact that Cold War-era information is reconstructed and that he sometimes had trouble gaining access to particular people or discussing sensitive topics such as environmental blackmail.

The book is organized into six chapters. After the introduction summarized above, Chapter Two lays out the book's analytical framework and outlines the general argument. In a brief literature review, Darst argues that existing perspectives used for analyzing international environmental politics — perspectives that focus on domestic politics, transnational diffusion of environmental information, and the international distribution of power — are not necessarily wrong, but are incomplete in explaining the (post) Soviet case. He suggests, instead — or perhaps better additionally, since domestic politics do play a part in his analysis — a focus on instrumental manipulation. Beyond the goals and manipulation strategies of the recipients, the strategies of external actors — Western or capitalist governments and organizations — are also briefly examined. Of particular concern is direct subsidization of measures to reduce transboundary environmental threats, referred to at one point as "bribery" (p. 34). In analyzing the motives for subsidization and how recipients manipulate it, the author draws upon a well-known theory in environmental economics, that of Ronald Coase, applying it here to an international setting. The basic idea is that market transactions can lead to a reduction of negative externalities (i.e., pollution) to socially optimum level — essentially, the victims (or victim countries) will pay the polluter (or polluting country) to reduce pollution if it can occur at a lower cost than at home. But Darst does not place complete reliance on this economic theory. In the real world, he notes, transnational environmental subsidization is driven by the economic interests of the donors, including who does the work and what work is done (e.g., western contractors and technology). In addition, interest in subsidization is sometimes influenced by broader political interests, such as supporting friendly governments or eliciting cooperation on other issues. Finally, such subsidization is described as having three kinds of unintended consequences. "Moral hazard" refers to situations in which actors deliberately take more risks than they might ordinarily, because they assume that someone else will bear part or all of the costs or consequences if things turn out badly (p. 47). In other words, the prospect of subsidization acts as a disincentive to clean up one's own mess or avoid polluting activities. "Polluter life extension" occurs when economic interests favor modernization (paid for by someone else, of course) over closure. And, in "environmental blackmail," potential recipients threaten donors with greater hazards in order to get payment for not doing so.

The next three chapters flesh out this argument through empirical case studies. The specific environmental problems examined were selected because there was Western interest in and East-West interaction on them dating back to the late 1960s or early 1970s, and the USSR and successor states could not avoid internal environmental damage by simply exporting pollution or free riding on the clean-up efforts of others. Each case is organized historically, with the major time periods being (1) the late 1960s to 1985, (2) the late 1980s under the rule of Gorbachev, and (3) the post Cold War period in the 1990s. The case studies move from most successful to most contentious in terms of the nature of cooperation and the achievement of pollution reduction goals.
Darst describes attempts to reduce Baltic Sea pollution as the "most successful case of transnationally subsidized environmental protection" (p. 53). These efforts began in the socialist era, with little initial success in terms of concrete pollution reduction, but they led to the creation of an "epistemic community" and increased information sharing. Several factors contributed to the subsequent success in addressing pollution problems in the Baltic by the late 1990s: the pollution sources were of relatively great domestic as well as western concern; regional decision makers had greater control following the Soviet Union’s breakup; the newly independent Baltic States experienced relatively rapid political and economic stabilization and had relatively strong environmental lobbies; municipal wastewater treatment provided a focal point for the efforts; and, finally, the pollution sources were substitutable and evenly distributed, which allowed fewer opportunities for extortion. This is one of the few places where Darst traces the role played by an individual — Dr. Harald Velmer — an issue to which I return in my concluding remarks. There were a few unexpected dimensions to the success of this case. A proliferation of actors (albeit limited) in the post-socialist period was favorable for cooperation, and a centralized pool of funds was not necessary for a coordinated program — although it was in a sense replaced by an integrated abatement plan with a common list of specific targets and a central forum for discussing progress and experience.

In contrast to the Baltic case, relative willingness to cooperate on the reduction of long-range transboundary air pollution during the Cold War, beginning with overtures by Brezhnev in the 1970s, was not followed by substantive concrete success or cooperation in the post-socialist era. While early detente-inspired efforts created a mechanism for future bargaining and stimulated national research programs, reducing sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide levels was not a priority for the Soviets. Much of the pollution reduction that occurred was due to other factors, such as changing patterns of energy production in European Russia in the 1980s, and declining production associated with the post-socialist economic collapse in the 1990s. Beyond this, Western pressure on the Soviet Union and successor states on this issue was nominal because, due to prevailing wind patterns, they are not a significant source of air pollution in Europe. (Poland and Czech Republic, which border directly on Western Europe, were of greater concern, and thus the focus of European attention.)

The exception to this relative lack of Western attention concerned facilities in the far northwest corner of the (former) Soviet Union, which closely border on Nordic countries and thus 'export' pollution to them. This is the site of the most sustained effort to subsidize such abatement in the newly independent states. Yet, in contrast to the Baltic case, these efforts were hampered by a general lack of convergent interests. Local (e.g., Russian) concern was about ash, dust, and other substances posing serious human health risks at short range, not the sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides of long-range (i.e., Western) concern. The latter pollutants require different and more expensive abatement equipment. In two of the three plants examined in this chapter, Western-initiated modernization efforts failed largely due to changes in firm ownership. In the third case, privatization involved a Western firm that agreed to modernize the facilities as part of the deal, rendering subsidization unnecessary. An important factor in this last case was that the facility was located in Estonia, and thus that country’s aspirations to join the European Union created an additional incentive to modernize the plant. Such was not the case with Russia — perhaps a major difference affecting the environmental policies and politics of East European countries when compared to those of most former Soviet states in the post-socialist period.

The case of nuclear reactor safety and radioactive waste disposal is largely a post-Chernobyl story, which the author describes as the "most tragic, paradoxical, and instructive" (p. 135) of the three case studies. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident, the anti-nuclear movement in the Soviet Union was relatively successful in the late 1980s, and many new nuclear projects were cancelled. In the post-Cold War period, however, the successor state governments decided that they could not afford to do without nuclear power and several projects were revived. In addition, the local anti-nuclear movement is described as largely disappearing with the end of the Cold War. (As someone interested in environmental movements in post-socialist countries, I found this "now you see them, now you don't" story unsatisfactory and would like to have seen a bit more discussion or at least some concrete evidence that this was indeed the case.) Meanwhile, with the availability of Western money through transnational subsidization, the successor states were willing to take more risks because they knew that richer states would come to their rescue if something went wrong. Beyond this so-called moral hazard, Darst documents two cases of what he calls "environmental blackmail": The Ukraine threatened to keep reactors running at Chernobyl until the West paid for replacement nuclear energy sources, and Russian threatened to continue marine dumping of radioactive waste until the more affluent countries provided assistance with alternative means for processing and disposing of such waste. The chapter ends with a more general consideration of environmental blackmail, concluding that such cases are actually relatively rare because numerous conditions must be met.

Smokestack Diplomacy’s concluding chapter focuses on the successes and failures of transnational subsidization in the post-Cold War period and uses the lessons learned to make recommendations about how to maximize its effectiveness in the future. The basic message is that the end of the Cold War and introduction of transnational environmental subsidization has had both positive and negative effects: Most political barriers to East-West cooperation were eliminated, but the initial reason for cooperation — a desire to moderate East-West hostility — also disappeared. In its place appeared transnational subsidization, which has resulted in environmental progress in cases where, among other things, interests converge and recipients have the economic and political ability to carry through. But subsidization has also produced some undesirable outcomes — moral hazards, polluter life extension, and vulnerability to environmental blackmail. Yet, in the end, Darst argues, transnational subsidization can still be an effective tool for addressing transboundary environmental problems under the right conditions. He suggests that its effectiveness can be improved by building upon recipient environmental interests when possible; by ensuring that economic benefits of joint implementation reinforce environmental goals and avoiding situations where economic and environmental goals are at cross purposes; by placing recipients in competition when possible; and by coordinating donor efforts. Furthermore, he cautions against investing large sums of money in problems that will go away on their own or paying for pollution reductions that have already occurred. Finally, regarding theory, Darst concludes that international environmental politics cannot entirely be reduced to Coasian bargaining. The transaction costs of bargaining are high, after the conclusion of the bargain there are still costs for monitoring and enforcement, and donors have limited money. Beyond this, such bargaining does not occur in a vacuum, but is rather affected by larger conditions.

Overall, Smokestack Diplomacy is a quite readable book that clearly tells a plausible story. Like Janine Wedel's Collision and Collusion (1998), it is a needed cautionary tale about some of the actual and perhaps unanticipated effects of Western aid to former socialist bloc countries in the last decade. To the extent that it uses specialist theory or concepts, these are explained in an understandable way. The production was good, without problems in copyediting or typographical errors, although I would have appreciated somewhat more user-friendly endnotes — for example, headers could have been used to indicate the page range for the notes on a given page of endnotes. More importantly, however, as an anthropologist I would like to have seen more discussion of the people involved in the story being told, beyond state figureheads such as Brezhnev and Gorbachev or the few relatively faceless scientists, and also the relationships between them. In contrast, Wedel (1998) and Weiner (1999), to name two recent works both cited by Darst, provide detailed discussion of people, organizations, and relationships of a kind that did not make it into Smokestack Diplomacy. Further discussion about how generalizable the proposed theory was to other contexts might also have been useful. Does it, for example, work best in reference to the former Soviet Union (or perhaps even only its western zones), or are such factors applicable to the countries of post-socialist Eastern Europe or other less well off nations. Most of the former have aspirations to join the European Union, such that this is likely to be a significant incentive for them to address environmental issues of concern to the West.

Yet, in the end, Darst makes a convincing argument based on substantial in-country research, and given its readability and clarity, the book is likely to make it onto the reading lists for many courses. Perhaps it will make it to the desks of some decision makers as well. While this is deserved, I would hope that it does so alongside works that get below the level of state figureheads and discuss the individuals and relationships involved.

References Cited:

Wedel, Janine W. 1998. Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989-1998. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Weiner, Douglas R. 1999. A Little Corner of Freedom: Russian Nature Protection from Stalin to Gorbachev. Berkeley: University of California Press.