Copenhagen: a Failure of American Statecraft

After a few weeks hiatus, I am now able to devote some time to blogging. The world has not held still in my absence; over the course of the last month the Lisbon Treaty was ratified, Washington decided to send 30,000 men to Afghanistan, Andhra Pradesh fragmented into two parts, MEND rebels drove Shell out of the Niger delta, Venezuela and Columbia came within a hairsbreadth of war, and President Obama delivered one of the more stirring justifications of just war doctrine I have had the privilege to hear.

While interesting and worth comment, none of these events were as intriguing as the climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The summit provided a unique chance to observe the intersection of many of the topics covered here at The Stage; public diplomacy, great power competition, and environmental politics were all present in spades. Understandably, I have spent the last few days catching up on what happened at the summit. Having mowed through several dozen articles and blog posts in this effort, I have come to a disheartening conclusion.

What happened at Copenhagen was a complete and utter failure of American statecraft.

Do not misunderstand me. While not a climate skeptic, I am quite skeptical of international carbon regulation regimes. There is little guarantee that such programs do anything but hinder global growth and provide yet another market for Wall Street’s crony capitalists to corner. In addition, I find it quite hard to justify the violations of freedom distinctive to any such regime.  Given the inherit difficulty in enforcing a legitimate treaty and the dubious moral foundation any regulatory structure would possess, I am, in a sense, glad that the summit failed.

But I do hate to see Uncle Sam take a sucker-punch straight to the face.

See, I would like to believe that America retains the power and foresight to meet its own strategic objectives. I would like to think that if the President of the United States decides to personally invest his time and energy in an enterprise, the enterprise will be successful. I would like to have confidence in Washington’s ability to understand and assess other actors on the international scene.  In short, I would like to believe that my country possesses the capacity to serve as a global hegemon.

What I would like to believe are all fancies, myths that Copenhagen has wholly disabused me of.

It is not as if America did not know what she was getting into. Months before the conference the Indian government made clear their position on the matter by publishing a report that projected India’s per capita green house gas (GHG) emissions in the year 2030 to be somewhere around four tonnes of carbon (or equivalent) per person. Noting that the projected per capita GHG emissions for India were less than the global per capita average in 2005, India could now claim that it was working hard to reduce emissions.

The problem was that the Indian government did not actually commit to anything. The decrease in carbon intensity projected by the report shall happen regardless of government intervention. New Delhi simply hijacked existing market trends (which reflect improvements in energy efficiency contingent on technological progress and infrastructure advancement) and used them to give the Indian government the appearance of tackling emissions head on while simultaneously tripling emissions.

Within a few weeks Beijing matched the Indians with its own commitments to lower GHG emissions per capita over the next two decades. As with the government in New Delhi, Bejing championed the projections as a step towards a carbon free future. Also like New Delhi, Beijing’s claims were complete and utter hogwash.

As spurious as these claims may have been, their message was clear: officials in Beijing and New Delhi do not see climate change as a serious problem, and neither group is willing to sacrifice cheap fossil fuels for its sake.

From this point forward Washington’s actions were painful to witness. Many of the Obama administration’s climate hands first broke their teeth attacking President Bush and company for the very claims now being made by China, yet nary a peep was heard from any of them in the weeks preceding the conference. Missing was a public relations campaign that might have displayed Indian and Chinese duplicity for all the world to see. Missing was much needed push-back against the developing narrative of an evil America attempting to escape accountability for her crimes by forcing the world’s poorest to pay for her ecological sins. Public diplomacy assets went utterly unused. By ignoring international opinion American officials ceded the moral high ground, and by extension,  the chance to set the parameters by which the battles in Copenhagen would be waged.

More opportunities were lost as the conference began. Once again the signs were clear: China was quick to attach itself to the Group of 77, the largest bloc of developing countries at the conference, and attain the status of de facto spokesman of the G77+1. (The official chair of the group was a representative from the government of Sudan – a regime which is no way in China’s pocket.) From this perch the Chinese aggressively pressured Western diplomats to avoid any talk of legally binding targets for the developing world. The Chinese, Sudanese, and Indians led the charge against the Danish text  (again citing fears of specific emissions targets), and began to work furiously with other developing heavyweights to develop a separate agreement disavowing any responsibility developing countries might have for the world’s climate. Relations between  developing countries and the West soured from this point on; a week after the conference had started negotiations had ground to standstill with delegates from all corners of the world threatening to jump ship.

This was the setting of President Obama’s arrival in in Copenhagen. Secretary of State Clinton’s announcement that the United States would provide $100 billion dollars of aid annually for adaptation projects across the world mollified things a bit, but the conference remained a tinderbox. The Americans were locked at an impasse with the Indians and Chinese, and everybody knew it.

This is not to say that the American position was hopeless. Mr. Obama could have outplayed the Chinese by placing technology sharing on the table as a gift instead of haggling endlessly over it. The President could have upped the aid ante by several hundred billion, unilaterally shaming Europe, Japan, and other developed countries into following suit.  He could have broken the already stressed Group of 77+1 into separate factions, offering military and economic compensation to individual nations in return for cooperation at the conference.

The President did none of these things, however. Other than offending Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao  (giving the Premier a convent excuse for avoiding the final sessions of the conference) Mr. Obama did precious little at all. He remained a passive actor on a stage his star power was unable to control.

Mark Lynas, who was present for the executive session of the conference, provides an excellent description of Copenhagen’s closing moments:

Mark Lynas. The Guardian. 23 December 2009.
Obama was at the table for several hours, sitting between Gordon Brown and the Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi. The Danish prime minister chaired, and on his right sat Ban Ki-moon, secretary-general of the UN. Probably only about 50 or 60 people, including the heads of state, were in the room. I was attached to one of the delegations, whose head of state was also present for most of the time.
What I saw was profoundly shocking. The Chinese premier, Wen Jinbao, did not deign to attend the meetings personally, instead sending a second-tier official in the country’s foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama himself. The diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his “superiors”.
To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point… China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen.

With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. “How can you ask my country to go extinct?” demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

And with that the Chinese and Indians can declare victory. But why did the Sino-Indian strategy succeed? The answer is simple: they knew the nature of their opponenet. Few in Washington have bothered to follow the going-ons of Beijing or New Delhi; the reverse cannot be claimed about the Chinese or  the Indians. To the contrary, they have watched the American seen with rapt attention. And what they saw was President Obama set unreasonable deadlines for accomplishing incredible goals time after time, only to see him snatch at whatever slapdash solution was available to save his administration from the collapse of the towering expectations built by his own rhetoric. The Chinese and Indians banked on this happening again. Happen it did.

The delegates from Beijing and New Delhi were also acutley aware of the international media’s inner workings; they knew they would be able to obstruct a meaningful deal without suffering any diplomatic consquences or public backlash. Poor third world delegates destroying an environmental revolution simply does not fit the traditional narrative. As Beijing and New Delhi knew they would, the media placed the blame for Copenhagen’s failure on Mr. Obama’s door step, and the Americans have yet to lift a finger in protest. As before, America’s public diplomats have remained silent.

(Significantly, the English language accounts blaming the Chinese for the conference’s failure have been published in Great Britain. And even they haven’t the will to break PC conventions and place any responsibility for the conference’s outcome on their former colony, India.)

In sum, I offer three observations drawn from the American experience in Copenhagen.

First, the machinery of the United State’s public diplomacy  is broken. American statesmen and diplomats consistently failed to influence international discourse or shape the narrative of events before or after the conference. The American viewpoint remains a story yet to be told.

Second, the Obama administration truly screwed up on long term strategic planning. They knew the expectations concerning Copenhagen long in advance but decided early on to prioritize health care reform over of a domestic cap and trade regime. This robbed the American delegation of any legitimacy it might have had at the negotiation table.

Finally, Washington’s foreign policymaking apparatus is unable to assess the interests and intentions of other actors on the international scene. When the American delegation walked into Copenhagen they had not the slightest notion of how to win their challengers over. I doubt they had a firm understanding of their challengers at all. The United States was functionally blind before and during the conference’s duration.

As said before, it was nothing but a complete and utter failure of American statecraft.


What exactly happened at Copenhagen?
Yu Zhou. China Beat. 4 January 2010.

Yu Zhou offers the best defense of the Chinese actions that I have yet seen. She rightly targets Lynas for exaggerating China’s antagonistic attitude towards climate deals, and scores a few points by questioning the validity of unsanctioned and exclusive meetings such as the one Lynas attended.

Comment 9- Copenhagen: Things Fell Apart
Lewis Claverdon. Yale Environment 360. 23 December 2009.

Scroll down to the 9th comment to read Claverdon’s comment. Claverdon makes a convincing (but not convincing enough) case for China being “brazenly provoked into rejecting the whole deal” by the United States.

COP15: (No) Hopenhagen?
Richard Black. BBC Earth Watch. 19 December 2009.

Black spreads the blame equally between the United States and China. His is a good analysis, but like many, completely ignores India’s contribution to the conference’s failure.

What Happened in Copenhagen.
Stephen Walt. Foreign Policy. 21 December 2009.

A few astute thoughts on the lessons to be learned from Copenhagen. My comments on Obama’s leadership style are almost directly ripped from this post.

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