Last month, when President Bush showed up in Sweden to explain his reasons for dropping out of a global agreement on climate change, he promised European leaders that he would not interfere with their efforts to carry out the accord.
But some European diplomats now say the administration appears to be backing away from that promise and creating obstacles for countries still committed to ratifying the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming.
Last week, for example, during consultations on the Kyoto agreement in the Netherlands, the U.S. delegation raised objections on four key issues, any one of which could be enough to doom the treaty, according to participants and observers.
"It seems that they are trying to obstruct and delay the process, and that's of course what we feared," said a European official who participated in the talks.
The dispute involves more than just diplomatic niceties: At stake is a four-year effort to negotiate ground rules for a binding treaty to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that many scientists believe are causing the Earth's climate to warm over time, with potentially severe consequences.
The true test of whether the Bush administration will try to stymie the process will come in two weeks, when representatives of more than 100 countries meet in Bonn to try to wrap up negotiations on the Kyoto treaty.
International leaders involved in the process are warning the United States, diplomatically, to butt out.
"The U.S. officials will have the eyes of many countries watching what they do," said Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson, who has been a leader in the Kyoto process. "I heard what they said. I can imagine that it could be used to block [the treaty]. But I count on it that [U.S. negotiators] will work as constructively as they promised they would."
Proponents of the Kyoto treaty have feared for some time that the Bush administration will work behind the scenes to discourage other countries, particularly Japan, from signing the treaty. Those concerns were heightened last weekend when U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, discussing Bush's summit here with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, said the Japanese government had joined the U.S. in opposing the treaty. It had not.
Although Bush rejected the Kyoto treaty as "fatally flawed," most other participating countries appear determined to plow ahead. But it will not be easy. The agreement becomes binding if ratified by countries that together were responsible for 55% of all carbon dioxide emissions from industrialized countries in 1990. The U.S. was by far the largest emitter in the group, with a 37% share.
Now that the U.S. has pulled out, the arithmetic has become challenging. Losing Japan, with its 9% share, would make the Kyoto agreement's prospects grim.
Japan remains on the fence. The desire to maintain economic competitiveness and relations with the U.S. make it difficult for Tokyo to ratify the accord. But national pride--the treaty is named after the Japanese city where it was crafted--and domestic support make it difficult for Koizumi's government to reject it.
International environmental groups worry that the objections raised by the U.S. at The Hague suggest the Americans plan to impede the treaty.
"It seems that the delegation is going against what President Bush promised European leaders, which was not to obstruct other countries from moving forward," said Jennifer Morgan of the World Wildlife Federation, a mainstream international environmental group. "If the United States were to obstruct, it would set negotiations back years and the solution to the problem back years.
"It would show," she added, "that the Bush administration has no concern about the environment at all, if it's not only going to keep us out of the treaty but the rest of the world as well."
The U.S. delegation justified its intervention at The Hague by noting that some provisions could set precedents for other international negotiations and that other provisions could have an impact on the 1992 U.N. climate change convention, the Kyoto accord's parent treaty, which Bush has said he supports.
The U.S. delegation objected to the European Union participating as one unit that shares the burden of reaching an overall target. Under this "EU bubble," some countries could reduce harmful emissions more and other nations could do so less, or they could even increase them, and the entire EU could still be considered in compliance.
The U.S. delegation also stressed that the key implementing organizations of the protocol must not be dominated by representatives from developing countries.
A third objection called into question a mechanism for pressing countries to comply with emissions targets by holding them responsible, if they miss a target, for making much deeper cuts during a subsequent commitment period. The U.S. argued that the penalties should not punish countries that miss their targets but should merely help them reach compliance.
The U.S. also stressed that it wants to remain involved in negotiations about providing funds to help developing countries control greenhouse gas emissions. This move raised concerns that the administration might attempt to block a plan to direct $1 billion a year to developing countries for that purpose.
Some European diplomats said that because of the etiquette of Kyoto negotiations, under which decisions are made by consensus and not by votes, the U.S. is welcome to voice its opinions though it doesn't intend to endorse the outcome.
"What people will think is a foul move is if they actively block the negotiations in Bonn," said a diplomat from another European country who is close to the negotiations.
Eileen Claussen, who was assistant secretary of State with responsibility for climate change negotiations under the Clinton administration, said the U.S. can make a case for weighing in on issues related to the underlying U.N. treaty, but not on the Kyoto accord itself.