The deal struck at Copenhagen shows that President Obama really is shaking up the old global order. And in ways that no one expected -- perhaps not even the President.
Even twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, the old habits of international governance had lingered on. International diplomacy truly is the most conservative form of politics. So, even after the disappearance of the Soviet Union, all of the other players kept on performing their old roles. The United States would take tough international positions grounded in a mix of morality and domestic interests. It would be reflexively opposed, first by the Soviet Union and later by the professional representatives of the developing world known as the Group of 77, or G77.
Europeans would then take advantage of US inflexibility to advance their own interests by playing honest broker -- first with the Soviet bloc and then with the developing world. In the process they often shocked Americans with their willingness to compromise principles that the US held dear. After the end of the Cold War, it even became thinkable for Europe and the G77 to create a consensus that was so far from official US views that the Americans were simply frozen out, forced to choose between international isolation or capitulation to the European-forged consensus. And, from the convention against land mines to the Kyoto accords and the International Criminal Court, that dynamic actually achieved a kind of success.
What's interesting about Copenhagen is how it differed from this script. It started out on the usual lines. The EU had taken a tough position on the need for serious reductions in carbon emissions -- a position that reflected its deeply held moral principles and its self interest as an economy whose carbon emissions had been held down by traditionally high oil prices and a collapse in inefficient Eastern European coal plants after the wall fell. The EU had also created a rough deal with the developing world, which would do something about emissions in return for large sums of money in aid. This approach had succeeded in freezing the US out of the diplomatic consensus. So as Copenhagen opened, Europe occupied the moral high ground and had lots of allies. It could fairly expect that a chastened US would finally have to come in from the cold at Copenhagen.
days later, the summit ended with the Europeans sputtering mad, forced to take a disappointing deal that was negotiated without them. From the early reports, it looks as though the President left them sitting secure in their moral redoubt and went directly to the largest developing countries -- China in particular,
but also India and Brazil -- to craft a compromise that worked for those countries and for him, even as it was condemned as shockingly cynical by Europeans.
Somehow, the EU had ended up playing the hard-line moralist role in Copenhagen that the US usually assumes, while President Obama had taken the compromising, brokering role usually played by Europeans. When the deal was done, the EU had a choice of wrecking Copenhagen by standing on principle for something tougher or accepting the fait accompli. Visibly seething, they took the deal.
Clever press commentators used to call President Clinton the first black President. Which made it hard to know what to call President Obama, until clever commentators began suggesting that he would be our first European President.
Indeed he may be, and in ways that the Europeans will sometimes regret.