The rituals of diplomacy reflect their time. In Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark, a French nobleman happens upon a diplomatic reception in St Petersburg’s Winter Palace, and remarks to camera, "This ceremony will continue for a few more hours still. As a former diplomat, I’m aware of that. A terrible boredom will set in. Terrible!"
The negotiations at Copenhagen will be much longer, more prosaic and (somewhat) less predictable. But the rituals by which they will be conducted are no less intricate.
Delegates will meet at the Bella Center, which, as the summit’s website threatens, "is a conference venue from the 1970s". The Center boasts "123,000 square metres of flexible exhibition hall space", much of which will be occupied by as many as 200 NGOs giving well-rehearsed presentations. The Bella Center is only a five-minute drive from the airport, so if any delegation decides to stage a walkout, their gesture is assured a certain level of dramatic immediacy.
In the days before the conference opens, the various, overlapping negotiating blocs will hold preparatory sessions. There will be meetings of the Least Developed Countries, the small island developing states, the African group and the G77 and China bloc (with some countries having membership in more than one of the blocs). These last-minute huddles will canvass tactics, strengthen commonalities and attempt to finesse differences (no easy task, especially for the huge and eclectic G77 grouping). At the same time, meetings of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) executive and the Joint Implementation supervisory committee, which oversee the key mechanisms of Kyoto compliance, will be held.
By this point, most of the key negotiators will be thoroughly familiar with one another. In their study of 10 multilateral environmental agreements including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Miquel Muñoz, Rachel Thrasher and Adil Najam found that, between 1992 and 2007, 250 apex negotiation meetings were held over 1626 days. It’s the kind of familiarity that English travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor, in another place and time, called the burden of "unsought and unchanging company".
While it might be thought that nothing new could be said by this stage, deadlines are well known to focus minds. As an example, the CDM, which has been crucial to the Kyoto project, was only agreed on the final night of negotiations in Kyoto.
It’s an old truth that the more parties to a negotiation, the more important procedures and structure are in getting a result. The Six-Party Talks dealing with the Korean nuclear problem have been famously meandering and troubled. If the Copenhagen summit is thought of as the 193 Party Talks, the scale of the challenge becomes apparent.
In fact, as the above list makes pretty clear, Copenhagen is not one meeting lasting two weeks, but a set of distinct (if overlapping) meetings. These include the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, the bedrock international grouping with near-universal membership; the meeting of parties to the Kyoto Protocol (membership of which is famously somewhat less universal); and meetings of subsidiary bodies for scientific and technological advice and for implementation. Working groups will also convene. One will discuss Kyoto commitments, while the other, rather hopefully, focuses "on long-term cooperative action".
Of these, the most important meetings are for the UNFCCC and the Kyoto Protocol. The UNFCCC meeting will begin with the adoption of both procedural rules and the agenda, and the election of office-bearers. The UNFCCC agenda covers finance, technology transfer, capacity building and the avoidance of deforestation. The Kyoto agenda provides for proposed amendments and for issues relating to the CDM and Joint Implementation.
The UNFCCC and Kyoto processes both reach their business end when they each culminate in the "high-level segment", when heads of government and ministers take charge of negotiations to secure an outcome. At this point, national statements will be made. The schedule is tight and the "recommended time limit" for speaking is three minutes (Colonel Gaddafi is unlikely to attend). Observers, including NGOs, will also have an opportunity to make statements. Technically, each agenda item is dealt with separately, but the resulting conference report must be adopted or rejected in toto.
But while having a good structure is crucial to an outcome, too much structure and preparatory work can itself hinder agreement. As one participant in the Seattle World Trade Organisation debacle recalls of that event, it was "a proposal-driven process. We would all put forward all our ideas and then work it down into some agreements. So then we had this 30-page document full of multiple options and square brackets. Then we in Geneva seemed incapable of reﬁning it, of seeing our piece go, of making compromises." That’s likely to be a problem for the Copenhagen draft text too, which is seen by many as too long and full of too many conflicting proposals.
However, while the process is choreographed, the outcome is not predetermined. The dynamics of a negotiation can have a real impact on the outcome. We saw that at the Bali climate conference in 2007. At the plenary sessions, a groundswell of objection to American intransigence steadily built, reaching its crescendo when Papua New Guinea’s Special Envoy called out (in a thick American accent) for the US to "get out of the way". The US delegation relented and allowed the Bali Action Plan through. (Admittedly, from the perspective of the pre-Copenhagen morass, this climb-down looks less significant than it did at the time, but, without the spectacle of united opposition, the US would have been less likely to change its position.)
While there have been plenty of signs in advance of the talks that an agreement is looking less likely all the time, we shouldn’t discount the influence of certain factors which tend to work against any foregone conclusions at these kinds of meetings. One of those is the potential importance of informal talks, and another is the fact that negotiating positions are often more flexible than they appear.
It is telling that, in the overview schedule, large swathes of green simply labelled "informal groups" run parallel to almost every specified session. In trade talks, these have often taken the form of a "green room" — a meeting of some delegation heads where agreements can be reached away from the plenary sessions. It was in such a green room that India’s holdout objections to progress at Doha finally dissolved.
The interpersonal factors at work in these informal meetings should be emphasised. Recent research has found that the social networks aspect of negotiations "can significantly affect how multilateral negotiations operate and how satisfied the parties are with the outcomes".
This is because national positions are rarely set in stone. A veteran trade negotiator once declared that "most delegations don’t know their own bottom lines". Another diplomat admitted that, on the domestic front, "few constituency groups will really tell you their bottom line," and even that "other actors in the government will give you a fake bottom line". The result is that, at the international level, when a delegation is "pushed by others, we have to take another look at it. I can’t tell you how many times we have ended up with something below our bottom line."
Woody Allen said that "80 per cent of success is showing up". If that’s true, then the recent decision by Obama to appear for one day at the talks could count for something. But it also means that a lot depends on what the diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians in Copenhagen do with the remaining 20 per cent. The conference rituals, intricate as they are, cannot preclude creativity and initiative.
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