Tag: conference diplomacy

How the Sausage is Made

Two years ago, Der Spiegel published an audio recording of secret negotiations involving many of the world’s most important leaders meeting together on Friday, December 18, 2009, during the Copenhagen climate summit:

The world’s most powerful politicians were gathered in the “Arne Jacobsen” conference room in Copenhagen’s Bella Center, negotiating ways to protect the world’s climate. US President Barack Obama was perched on the edge of a wooden chair with blue upholstery, talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The blue turban of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was bobbing over the tops of a few hastily assembled potted plants. The meeting was soon dubbed the “mini-summit of the 25.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was there, representing the African continent, and Mexican President Felipe Calderon was standing nearby. Only one important world leader was missing, an absence that came to symbolize the failure of the climate summit: Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao…

Now, for the first time, SPIEGEL is in a position to reconstruct the decisive hour-and-a-half meeting on that fateful Friday. Audio recordings of historical significance, in the form of two sound files that total 1.2 gigabytes in size and that were created by accident, serve as the basis for the analysis. The Copenhagen protocol shows how the meeting Gordon Brown called “the most important conference since the Second World War” ended in a diplomatic zero.

The video posted above includes many of the most important sound snippets, accompanied by photos of the speakers and some important contextual information.

Der Spiegel‘s online version of the article includes key quotations from the meeting. Essentially, European leaders like Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown were urging their colleagues to come to an agreement about both near-term and long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Asian negotiators, including top Chinese diplomat He Yafei, argued against the sizable emissions reductions target under discussion (50%), even though “Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg pointed out that it was the Indians who had proposed the inclusion of concrete emissions reductions for the industrialized nations in the treaty.”

European leaders and China’s negotiator Yafei had a surprisingly tense back-and-forth exchange that nicely summarizes some of the most important international politics undergirding the climate change debate. The western leaders accused the Chinese of seeking double standards, wanting to free ride on environmental commitments made by the affluent states:

The words suddenly burst out of French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I say this with all due respect and in all friendship.” Everyone in the room, which included two dozen heads of state, knew that he meant precisely the opposite of what he was saying. “With all due respect to China,” the French president continued, speaking in French.

The West, Sarkozy said, had pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent. “And in return, China, which will soon be the biggest economic power in the world, says to the world: Commitments apply to you, but not to us.”

Sarkozy, gaining momentum, then said: “This is utterly unacceptable!” And then the French president stoked the diplomatic conflict even further when he said: “This is about the essentials, and one has to react to this hypocrisy!”

Angela Merkel also joined the fray, by referencing the scientific evidence necessitating that China join a binding agreement for significant emissions reductions:

Merkel took one last stab. The reduction of greenhouse gases by 50 percent, that is, limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, was a reference to what is written in the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. Then she directed a dramatic appeal at the countries seeking to block the treaty: “Let us suppose 100 percent reduction, that is, no CO2 in the developed countries anymore. Even then, with the (target of) two degrees, you have to reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries. That is the truth.”

China’s negotiator, He Yafei was unmoved, and placed the blame for climate change — as well as the responsibility to act — squarely on the shoulders of affluent states:

The Chinese negotiator… took on the French president’s gaffe, and said: “I heard President Sarkozy talk about hypocrisy. I think I’m trying to avoid such words myself. I am trying to go into the arguments and debate about historical responsibility.”

He Yafei decided to give the group a lesson in history: “People tend to forget where it is from. In the past 200 years of industrialization developed countries contributed more than 80 percent of emissions. Whoever created this problem is responsible for the catastrophe we are facing.”

Seeking to break the impasse, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke pragmatically about the need for action from both the advanced economies and the large developing states (India and China).

“From the perspective of the developed countries, in order for us to be able to mobilize the political will within each of our countries to not only engage in substantial mitigation efforts ourselves, which are very difficult, but to also then channel some of the resources from our countries into developing countries, is a very heavy lift,” Obama said. Then, speaking directly to China, he added: “If there is no sense of mutuality in this process, it is going to be difficult for us to ever move forward in a significant way.”

However, Obama also suggested in his remarks that the problem need not be addressed in the current meeting since “We will try to give some opportunities for its resolution outside of this multilateral setting.”

Indeed, not long after this meeting, the US, China, India and other players cut a deal involving near-term (2020) emissions reduction targets that countries would set for themselves. This was described by climate activist Bryony Worthington as a “voluntary ‘pledge and review later’ type agreement with minimum enforcement.” Worthington and many other observers thus considered the summit “a spectacular failure on many levels.”

The final deal was made, as Der Spiegel notes, without direct input from the Europeans. In other words, the key decisions were not made at the meeting documented in the audio recording. In fact, the high-level mini-summit adjourned at the request of the Chinese negotiator, and the major developing states met separately:

The Indians had reserved a room one floor down, where Prime Minister Singh met with his counterparts, Brazilian President Lula da Silva and South Africa President Jacob Zuma. Wen Jiabao was also there.

Shortly before 7 p.m., US President Obama burst into the cozy little meeting of rising economic powers.

At that meeting, everything that was important to the Europeans was removed from the draft agreement, particularly the concrete emissions reduction targets. Later on, the Europeans — like the other diplomats from all the other powerless countries, who had been left to wait in the plenary chamber — had no choice but to rubberstamp the meager result.

IR scholars rarely have access to this kind of (nearly) real-time “insider” data, though it is telling that virtually all of the world leaders make claims that we would have expected. In that way, this audio recording is like the Wikileaks documents. The evidence reveals what we think we already know about how the sausage is made.

Note: Thanks to Miranda Schreurs (posting on a mailing list) for pointing me to the audio recording.


James Ron: IR Profs Should Teach Religious Fluency

Here is a fabulous interview on Canadian TV with Professor James Ron of Carleton University. Ron’s key argument is that we are not giving our students a sufficient education if they leave our classes fluent in human rights discourse but not in the nuts and bolts of the world’s leading religions.

A real “aha” moment for me as a teacher – sure, I’ve always tried to make sure they know the difference between Sunni and Shi’a or the difference between an Islamic and a Muslim majority state, or the role of the Holy See at the UN, but Ron’s argument goes further: he’s not simply saying students should know facts about religion and politics, but that religious narrative itself is a language students need in order to communicate effectively as future diplomats. At the same time, he humbly and humorously reminds us what a socio-cultural mine-field such teaching can be, whether it’s our students or our own kids.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


A Seat at the Table

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.


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