Negotiation nostalgia: How Diplomats negotiate international agreements



I’m not in Rio de Janeiro. I’m in DC now, although as the weather heats up to the 90s today, and maybe up to 100 tomorrow, I’m thinking more and more that I should have found some excuse to go to the Rio+20 meeting. Even on the warmest days the beaches and the breezes, not to mention the great music and culture, make Rio a wonderful place to be. Even if you’re there to try, against all odds, to get the world’s leaders to take the environment seriously.

But even without being there, I’ve had real feelings of negotiation nostalgia as I’ve been reading the Rio+20 blog posts of my colleagues Calen May-Tobin and Alden Meyer. There’s a pattern to the way that diplomats negotiate international agreements that I’ve seen repeatedly over the past five years, whether the setting is Bonn or Bali, Cancun or Copenhagen.

For a long time, hardly anything seems to be happening. And then at the last minute, either the negotiators come up with a successful agreement, or else they paper over their failure with a face-saving statement, which usually fools no one. Or sometimes, even saving face is beyond their grasp, and after a few hours of drama, the negotiations simply end.

But usually, what is going on is in many ways just play-acting. The pretense is that negotiating is happening in the enormous conference halls where the representatives of country after country make their public statements. The reality is that the hard bargaining takes place behind the scenes in small (though no longer smoke-filled) rooms, and often is essentially finished well before the formal negotiations even begin.

Take the historic environmental agreements of the original Rio “Earth Summit” 20 years ago, including treaties on climate, biodiversity and an agenda for sustainable development. As it was explained to some of us negotiation newbies by our friend John Lanchbery of Bird Life International (like Alden a veteran of that “Rio+0” meeting), the agreements that were signed there had been negotiated months in advance. The meeting itself was just to put the final touches on the documents and provide a setting for world leaders to fly in and add their signatures to them, generating good press for themselves in the papers back home.

I’ve seen this myself in several of the international climate negotiations over the past five years. The successes we’ve had in getting agreements to reduce tropical deforestation, notably at Cancun in 2010 and in Durban last December, were the product of many months of bargaining beforehand, and were essentially finalized by the time the ministers showed up to OK them. Mid-level experts – in common parlance, bureaucrats – did all the heavy lifting, and then the political leaders arrived, blessed their product, and took the credit.

Occasionally, though, the process escapes control. The play can’t be performed because the script hasn’t been written, and in the final hours the writing is actually happening right there in public for all to see. It’s the negotiators’ worst nightmare.

Sometimes these public dramas result in success, sometimes in failure. At Bali in 2007, after dramatic confrontations on the floor of the conference, the Bush administration’s representatives gave in and allowed the process to go forward, beginning comprehensive climate negotiations toward a global agreement. On the other hand, at Copenhagen in 2009, despite the presence of all the world’s political leaders, the end result was that the agreement couldn’t be agreed to, only “taken note” of. We’re still trying to recover from that debacle.

Is it a totally irrational way to try to solve the crisis of climate change? Of course. But its irrationality is the irrationality of the system that created the problem in the first place – the fossil-fuel-based global economy that sees the environment as a distraction rather than as the source of our wealth. Until the negotiators, and the politicians they work for, see the world’s people demanding a new system, the play will continue. And we’ll all act our parts.