Some fundamental new realities about global power shifts in the world, and the role of Obama's America in the new order, have been obscured by the frenzy to declare winners and losers at the just-concluded Copenhagen conference on climate change.
One of these realities is that developing nations, though not always united, nonetheless command a large majority in United Nations gatherings such as the Copenhagen conference as well as in the General Assembly. At some point they will prevail. Meanwhile, they increasingly exert their collective influence in sometimes obstructionist or even self-defeating ways because they are denied permanent places in seats of power, foremost on the Security Council, where major global issues are discussed, and in the major international financial institutions.
The US may be successful in co-opting some of the more economically powerful among developing and middle-income nations--for example, bringing a dozen or more into an expanded G8, now the G20--but even then, there will be countries like Pakistan, Egypt, Venezuela, Iran and occasionally Indonesia willing to rally firm majorities on issues in international gatherings that run counter to policies and proposals from the Global North.
Barack Obama seems to have grasped this reality, if his willingness to talk with foreign leaders long shunned by the United States is any guide. Not a few of these governments seen as adversaries of the US rule over people whose interests they do not really represent, however, and the Obama administration also professes its willingness to stand by those suppressed populations. At Copenhagen, the new American president was in a truly international mix for the first time, with both governments and nongovernmental organizations being heard.
In a UN context, the drama of Copenhagen was in itself not new. All recent major UN conferences have played by this script: days of haggling, recriminations, walkouts, all-night sessions and personal meltdowns before a final agreement emerges that suits almost no one. If two political parties in the United States cannot work out a deal on healthcare, more than 190 nations are up against an even bigger hill to climb. Unlike at meetings of the old G8, agreements at UN events are not pre-cooked. They are flimsy drafts festooned with brackets revealing the holes where important decisions should be. Weeks before Copenhagen it was clear, and publicly proclaimed, that a legally binding accord was not in the cards. Onward to the next round in Mexico in 2010.
One new element in Copenhagen was the high level of participation--presidents and prime ministers--underlining the seriousness with which the issues of global warming and the need for international cooperation to combat it are now taken. Two years ago in Bali, where the agenda for Copenhagen was laid out, lower-level officials did the squabbling, and the US delegation was so obstructionist and offensive until the end that a delegate from Papua New Guinea, not a corner often heard from, rose in anger to shout to the Americans: "If you're not willing to lead, please get out of the way."
President Obama, reversing two decades of neglecting climate agreements, under Bill Clinton (even with Al Gore around) and George Bush, proved willing to lead in Copenhagen, to the point of impromptu negotiating not usually seen at this level around the UN. Moreover, he did it in partnership not with the Europeans but with China. The United States did not sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol on emissions, which the current round of conferences is intended to replace. China did, and has since become a world leader in alternative energy development.
In Copenhagen, Obama pulled off what was perhaps the only possible agreement by working in tandem with Wen Jiabao, China's prime minister. They then brought in major developing nations such as Brazil, India and South Africa. India, a country with a poor environmental record now in the top half-dozen emitters of greenhouse gases (and soon to be the world's most populous country), has been adamantly opposed to binding pacts and international monitoring, even more than China. India's power to obstruct had to be calculated into cobbling together what was realistically doable.
The developing nations of the G77 did display some deep internal divisions, which have been emerging over recent years. Some of the voices in Copenhagen most willing to compromise with the Global North came from the poorest and most vulnerable countries, such as the Maldives, doomed to be among the first to go under water, and Ethiopia, whose prime minister Meles Zenawi, leader of the African group at the conference, outraged other Africans by pleading for any reasonable agreement that would get programs moving soonest, first on mitigation of already damaging climate changes and then on longer-term projects.
In Copenhagen it also became clearer that countries producing oil and coal may become a splinter group of their own opposing significant reductions in carbon emissions and investment in alternative energy sources. Ethiopia's most outspoken critic was Sudan, where as much as 95 percent of export revenues come from oil.
Brazil will be an interesting test case among oil producers, as its production is set to rise substantially in coming years. Brazilians understand alternative energy; their country is a world leader in the field. They drive flex-fuel cars. Their economy is richly diversified. They are for the most part free-traders, and they have been cognizant for decades of the disastrous consequences of rainforest loss.
If the Obama administration continues to pursue an enhanced working relationship with China, it might also look to a closer partnership with Brazil, one of the most powerful countries in the Western hemisphere and potentially a strong candidate for a permanent Security Council seat, if and when the five powers now holding such seats--China, Britain, France, Russia and the United States--come to realize that in this new world, they are so fifties. As the United States builds bridges elsewhere, could the special relationships with Europe also be out of date?