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.”