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Foreign Policy: Obama Just Isn't A Good Negotiator

President Barack Obama shakes onlookers by the hands after saying "It's time to go home," as he walks through the press conference room at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on December 18, 2009. Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama shakes onlookers by the hands after saying "It's time to go home," as he walks through the press conference room at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on December 18, 2009.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

What happened in Copenhagen? The answer is: not much. Facing a very real possibility of complete failure — a two-year buildup to a cacophonous conference that ended in de facto deadlock — a select group of major powers cobbled together a non-binding "agreement" to undertake various purely voluntary actions, aimed at an arbitrary target for limiting future atmospheric warming. As Greenpeace noted on its Twitter page: "2 years planning, 2 weeks negotiating = worse than half-assed deal in the last 2 hours. Climate change you can believe in." And I assume you didn't missed the symbolism of Obama leaving the conference a day early so he could get back to Washington before it snowed.

Environmental issues aren't my main thing, you understand, but I can't resist the urge to offer a few comments.

First, you shouldn't be surprised by this outcome, especially if you've been reading this blog. As the Economist noted a week or so ago, "Climate change is the hardest political problem the world has ever had to deal with." In addition to the scientific uncertainties (not about the fact of climate change, but about the impact of different policy responses), dealing with man-made climate change is a classic collective action problem. All countries would like to avoid the consequences of atmospheric warming, but they would also like someone else to pay the costs of addressing it. Furthermore, the worst negative consequences won't be evenly distributed and won't occur for several decades, which means that today's leaders would have to impose costs on their citizens now in order to leave future generations better off. That's do-able, but hardly a tempting prospect for most politicians. In addition, there is still no consensus on the best way to proceed: some states favor "cap and trade" systems while other prefer a straightforward "carbon tax." Finally, the main polluters are in very different economic circumstances; the developed world created the problem but now wants to get rising powers like China and India to undertake potentially costly measures that could slow their own growth. Needless to say, that's not very attractive to Beijing or New Delhi. Toss in the reality that any agreement would be unwieldy, expensive, and rife with verification problems, and you have an issue that makes reforming health care here in the United States look absurdly simple by comparison.

Second, the outcome in Copenhagen does lend support for FP chief Moises Naim's concept of "minilateralism." If you can't get 192 states to agree on a global agreement (and it sure looks like you can't), then focus on getting the biggest economies (who are the biggest source of the problem and the states with the resources to help the others), and see if you can get some sort of agreement among them. Thus, an optimist could see the face-saving "deal" that emerged at the very end of the conference as the building block for a new initiative that would eschew a grand global bargain in favor of a more focused deal among the major powers.

Third, this episode offers another revealing glimpse at Obama's diplomatic style; indeed, his entire approach to politics. A master of soaring rhetorical style, he sets ambitious goals and imposes short deadlines (remember when he said he wanted to get a two-state solution in his first term?). When those lofty goals (inevitably) turn out to be unreachable, he grabs what's available (a flawed health care deal, more photo-op "diplomacy" in the Middle East, a compromise "surge" in Afghanistan, etc.), and talks about the need to keep "moving forward."

The "glass half full" interpretation is that this approach avoids complete deadlock and helps Obama avoid the appearance (and maybe the reality) of complete and obvious failure. And in some cases, most notably health care, you end up with a reform that is better than having done nothing, even if it is far less than the American people deserve. Given the complexity of some issues — such as climate change — and the barriers to bold action that are central to America's checks-and-balances, multiple veto-point system of government, this may be the best he/we can do.

But there's a "half-empty" version of this story too. By setting too many lofty goals, and showing a too-ready willingness to cut deals in order to save face, Obama is teaching his opponents that he's never going to walk away and that they can always get a better deal if they stonewall him and drag things out as long as they can. That's a problem no matter who is doing it: the GOP, China, the Karzai government, Benjamin Netanyahu, or Iran. What makes it worse is Obama's penchant for thrusting himself into the middle of negotiations at the wrong time, as he did over the City of Chicago's Olympics bid and as he appears to have done in Copenhagen as well. (If climate change is really that important he should have been there longer; if it was clear that no deal was going to happen, maybe he shouldn't have gone at all).

But what really worries me is that Obama is in fact making the best of a set of bad options, and that it still won't be nearly good enough.