- Toronto Star -
COPENHAGEN–If the talks that resulted in an imperfect deal to combat global warming provided anything here, it was a glimpse into a new world order in which global diplomacy will increasingly be shaped by the United States and emerging powers, most notably China.
Friday's agreement, sources involved in the talks said, boiled down to U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao personally hammering out a pact they could live with, even if many other nations could not. Wen even squelched his own negotiator's protests.
What Obama heralded as a "breakthrough" – after getting India and other rising powers to sign on – was decried by some leaders as too little, too late. The leaders of Europe, Japan and other countries at the summit were largely left to rubber-stamp the deal. The Swedish prime minister's office dubbed it "a disaster."
Ever since the concept of a Group of Two was proposed this year by former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, it has been pooh-poohed by both American and Chinese officials. China hated the notion of addressing the world's problems alongside the United States because it put too much responsibility on a country that has done very well rising in the shadows. Many U.S. officials opposed it on the grounds that the best way to influence China was through multinational partnerships.
More than anything else, critics said, Friday's climate agreement reflected the domestic political realities in Washington and Beijing. Both nations, the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, remain more cautious than, say, the governments of Europe about establishing a strict set of international rules to combat global warming. Not coincidentally, the agreement allows nations to set their own emission reduction targets and provides no deadline for signing a binding international accord.
As such, the deal may portend how issues from world trade to nuclear proliferation will be negotiated in the years ahead, with China leading a caucus of rising powers on one side and the United States on the other.
"The mark is being stamped on a new political world," said Duncan Marsh, who directs international climate policy for the Nature Conservancy. Said Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defence Fund: "Coming into this conference, it was about 193 countries, and coming out of it, it clearly came down to a conversation between the leaders of those two superpowers."
Orville Schell, a longtime China watcher who is director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, said the erratic dance between China and the United States is another example of how the bilateral relationship is at a tipping point. China is becoming a major player, albeit reluctantly, and the United States, with similar uneasiness, is making room for China at the table of world leadership.
"We're not exactly partners, but we're much more equals," Schell said. "The Chinese miss the idea that there's some grander, stronger authority. They are not used to this role of actually helping to fashion and form things."
The fate of any future global climate change treaty will now effectively rest in the hands of the two largest emitters – the United States and China. For at least the next several years, the lack of a binding international treaty may result in a piecemeal response to the problem, with action being taken largely on a national and regional level.