A Seat at the Table

21 December 2009, 1911 EST

In a scathing analysis of the Copenhagen summit, The Financial Times published the following side-bar vignette:

Barack Obama’s meeting on Friday evening with the leaders of the major developing economies was perhaps the most farcical event in two weeks of mayhem. At 7pm, the leader of the world’s biggest economy was due at a meeting with Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, in a backroom barred off from the rest of the conference with heavy security.

Mr Obama strode in, according to US accounts, discovering as he did so that his planned interlocutor was already there – deep in conversation with Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister who, the Americans had been told, had already left. With them were Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma.

The US leader called out: “Are you ready for me?” There was no space at the table, but Mr Lula squeezed round, allowing Mr Obama to pull up a chair and sit down.

I wish I had a video of that. Welcome to the new multilateralism, where the old fiction of developing countries having a seat at the bargaining table has been transformed into reality. Surely this is a good thing?

The FT insinuates otherwise. They compare the Copenhagen process to the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks — now stalled out and unlikely to be revived in the current neo-mercantilist economic climate. Many analysts have blamed the collapse of Doha on both the increased complexity of trade issues, and the increased number of negotiating parties at the table. Basically, when multilateralism comes to mean over a hundred sovereigns at the table, rather than 15 or so who expect the hundred or so others to be too weak to object, it no longer produces meaningful binding agreements. To further quote the same FT story:

According to UN rules, countries must reach a consensus before any binding decision is made. For a climate change agreement covering many complex areas, hundreds of negotiators had to meet in dozens of groups to work on pages of highly detailed drafts.

But once this was under way, the technical meetings did not go as planned. Smaller developing countries raised questions of procedure, repeatedly delaying discussions of the substantive issues. Some reopened discussions on matters others had thought settled. For instance, Tuvalu and several small island states forced a half-day suspension by seeking to make the talks’ ultimate aim a limit of 1.5°C in global temperature rises rather than 2°C – a limit many countries view as impossible to achieve.

As the talks entered their final week, the wrangling grew worse. Australia was to be the co-chair of a group discussing commitments to reduce emissions but needed a developing country partner. Of at least 10 approached, none would do it.

While some of the countries raising objections had legitimate concerns – “It’s hard to argue with people whose homeland is going to disappear”, as one negotiator put it – the effect was a failure to make progress on the formal aspects of an agreement.

So effective were the tactics that some developed countries suspected a co-ordinated campaign, backed by China. China has many trade links with the 130 developing nations in the “Group of 77”, of which it is the most powerful. For instance, the G77 chair is held by Sudan, closely tied to China through investments and oil trade. Lumumba Di-Aping, the group’s leader, was one of the most confrontational developing country representatives, likening the rich countries’ stance to genocide.

By the time the leaders began to arrive last Thursday night, Ed Miliband, UK climate change secretary, was warning the talks were in danger of degenerating into farce. Progress was stalled on substantive issues and the wording of the draft text was still subject to intense quibbling. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad chose to use their time on the world stage to denounce western capitalism rather than discuss climate change, which did not help the atmosphere.

“Degenerating into farce” is the operative term. Has conference diplomacy ever been anything other than farce? Surely something like the 1814 Vienna Congress is exempt from such a charge? They only had a few great powers to contend with, not demagogues and rabble, right? But I recently read (just for fun) a popular, gossipy account of the Congress (Vienna 1814 by David King) that makes this haloed moment in international history seem just as much a farce as Copenhagen (the full text of the Copenhagen agreement is here).

Of course, the fact that a conference appears as farce does not preclude it having lasting and significant effects. But it is difficult (impossible?) to disentangle those while the initial drama is still reverberating.

Is there a general problem with conference diplomacy? Too many parties at the table? The degeneration of UN conferences into nothing but opportunities to grandstand for a domestic audience? The inability of governments to cope with global problems, combined with their inability to make credible commitments to each other? The nefarious and increasingly powerful influence of China? Does the new clout of countries like China, India, and Brazil undermine progress toward binding commitments? Or is this just an imperialist attitude? Is what we have now Multilateralism 2.0, or is it the same old game, with some new players stepping into old roles? I’m wondering.