What Wikileaks tells us about climate diplomacy

Will diplomacy ever be the same again? Ten days later, the Wikileaks disclosures are still going strong, including one tranche of US embassy cables that touch on some aspect of climate change diplomacy. I’ve taken a few days to digest all of it, but the main summary piece on this subject comes from the Guardian’s Damian Carrington:

“Hidden behind the save-the-world rhetoric of the global climate change negotiations lies the mucky realpolitik: money and threats buy political support; spying and cyberwarfare are used to seek out leverage.

The US diplomatic cables reveal how the US seeks dirt on nations opposed to its approach to tackling global warming; how financial and other aid is used by countries to gain political backing; how distrust, broken promises and creative accounting dog negotiations; and how the US mounted a secret global diplomatic offensive to overwhelm opposition to the controversial “Copenhagen accord“, the unofficial document that emerged from the ruins of the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009.”

There are fourteen cables released so far (by the Guardian, at least) on this subject. These touch on cyberwarfare and spying (1 cable, from 2009), the appointment of an Iranian scientist to a senior IPCC post (3, from 2008), and the decision over who would host the new International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) (2, from 2009). Of the remaining 8, a good number are also concerned with the US-EU relationship, but my main interest here is what this tells us about the negotiating relationship between developed and developing countries:

  • The flow in finance – and divergence between promises and reality – is central to the negotiating logjam: one cable in January, detailing a meeting between the US ambassador to the Netherlands and the lead Dutch climate negotiator, seems reasonably prescient: “Kaasjager was particularly concerned about bottlenecks in the flow of fast-track financing envisioned in the Copenhagen Accord. Without serious effort by donor countries, he predicted a worst case scenario in which G77 members use the late 2010 Cancun meeting to accuse the developed world of failing to follow through on its fast-track financing promises.” These accusations have not been completely acrimonious, but they do give developing countries pause for thought about whether future agreements are worth the paper they are written on. In other cables (noted below), Ethiopia’s President expresses a concern about the transparency of finance; Maldivian officials make clear what their adaptation financing needs are; and Saudi hope for credits for carbon capture and storage may help to shift their position. Conversely, talk of “creative accounting” between the US and EU in one cable – i.e. over making finance available as loans or grants – only erodes confidence in the willingness of donors to follow both letter and spirit of their pledges.
  • Status and symbols still matters greatly – hence the importance of the Kyoto Protocol (as I suggested in my last post): one cable, summarizing exchanges with Saudi officials, outlines the challenge of how to help the Saudis “find a way to climb down from their current position, ideally by offering the hand of partnership” to avoid diplomatic embarassment should Saudi Arabia seek to shift away from its hardline negotiating demands. Similarly, concern was expressed over not having indicated sufficient “goodwill” at Copenhagen in proposals made. Positions that have hardened over time do not get unwound overnight – and the symbols of the past that mark and define these positions also cannot be casually dismissed. A cable recounting a US national security official meeting with EU bureaucrats makes this point: highlighting the unity the BASIC group were able to achieve compared to relative US-EU disunity, the emphasis on achieving future US-EU unity  is a reminder of just how much the two have been at odds for the past decade, with the EU having emphasized its independence on climate policy from the US and blaming the latter for the slow pace of international progress.
  • Personal perceptions and interactions do shape expectations and demands: EU President Herman von Rompuy’s pessimism about Cancun would seem to be related to the feeling that he had been snubbed at Copenhagen, as related in a cable from the head of the US mission to the EU shortly after Copenhagen. Lead Saudi negotiator Mohammed al-Sabban (in the ‘Saudi cable’ described above) is said to have “reminisced fondly about the inclusive nature of the initial Kyoto Protocol negotiations” (for he was present at those too) – and when compared with another Saudi official apparently expressing less nostalgic views, reminds us that human interactions and perceptions are not insubstantial in underpinning national policy. The nature of human cognition has its very real effects on the flow of international negotiations – where pessimism leads to inaction and downgraded priorities (as with von Rompuy at that moment in time), or where the symbolism of past achievements sets the bar for the present and future (as with al-Sabban and the Kyoto Protocol).

‘Real’ positions, ‘real’ interests – peering into the inner thoughts of US diplomats as they engage their counterparts is a reminder of the mix of things from which national policies and positions are composed – the rationally-judged financial costs and benefits; the broader geopolitical landscape where countries are talking with each other on a range of issues simultaneously; and the ideational biases that self-image, pride and history leave. None of this seems especially surprising, or ‘new’ in a grand understanding of climate diplomacy – but it adds a rich layer of detail to the constant positioning and diplomatic footwork going on behind the scenes, well away from the conference floor.

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