No end to winning

The Leaders’ Declaration from the just-ended G20 summit in Hamburg runs to 14 pages of dense diplospeak prose, 5,311 words. Can anyone point to a single line that is a win for US diplomacy? If there had been one, Trump would have claimed it.

Or in any of the 14 other documents “agreed” at the same time? Here they are, confirmation that German industriousness extends to paperwork. Site link if you feel up to it.

Agreed Documents

  1. Hamburg Action Plan
  2. Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth
  3. Hamburg Update: Taking forward the G20 Action Plan on the 2030 Agenda
  4. Annual Progress Report 2017
  5. G20 Action Plan on Marine Litter
  6. G20 Africa Partnership
  7. G20 Initiative for Rural Youth Employment
  8. High Level Principles on the Liability of Legal Persons for Corruption
  9. High Level Principles on Organizing against Corruption
  10. High Level Principles on Countering Corruption in Customs
  11. High Level Principles on Combatting Corruption related to Illegal Trade in Wildlife and Wildlife Products
  12. G20 Initiative #eSkills4Girls
  13. Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative
  14. G20 Resource Efficiency Dialogue.

The media are concentrating on the one glaring defeat for Trump on climate. As I predicted last December, the other 19 have gone their own way:

We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The United States of America announced it will immediately cease the implementation of its current nationally-determined contribution and affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs. The United States of America states it will endeavour to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources, given the importance of energy access and security in their nationally-determined contributions.

The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible. We reiterate the importance of fulfilling the UNFCCC commitment by developed countries in providing means of implementation including financial resources to assist developing countries with respect to both mitigation and adaptation actions in line with Paris outcomes and note the OECD’s report “Investing in Climate, Investing in Growth”. We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation … blah blah.

The US threat to help other countries backslide on their Paris commitments is empty. Even Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey refused to show any solidarity with Trump and signed on to the strong G19 statement, a major win for Merkel. There is no mention of North Korea, a major and immediate US headache, in the Declaration. Nor of Syria and Iraq. (The price was forgetting about the 2009 pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, no date given then or subsequently. It’s still there on page 12(!) of the ”Climate and Energy Action Plan for Growth” annex, but the action has shrunk to token peer review. This suits Merkel, who does not want to pick a fight with her SPD coalition partners on a coal phaseout, so the German policy of continued dithering is now officially the world consensus.) [Update: Turkey is joining Russia in delaying Paris ratification, probably to get leverage with the EU. Unlike the USA, Turkey is building coal as well as renewable generating plants.]

Why did Trump fail so completely? It not just or even mainly because he’s thick.

He sees himself as a great negotiator – but his experience has I think all been in one-on-one settings, the normal form in real estate. There’s a cake (the joint consumer surplus from the deal), and the aim is to grab the largest slice. The most useful threat is to walk away. Bullying and seduction are other standard tactics.

Expand the negotiation to three or more, and everything changes. If Alice threatens Bob, Carol will probably take his side. If Alice tries to seduce Bob, Carol will be jealous of the privilege. The threat to walk away is still available to Alice, but it is less valuable: Bob and Carol may strike a deal between themselves, for a smaller cake.

I spent my professional life in a multilateral organisation, the Council of Europe. We had no grand theory of how to get results, but there was a practice informed by common sense and intuition.

  1. Start with a problem that is real to all or many parties.
  2. Identify a common interest or perception or value. Even if it’s trivial, put it in. “Whereas 2+2 =4 …”. You are trying to build a collective ethos and commitment to a problem-solving process that goes beyond purely national loyalties. Hence the mind-numbing repetition of the politically correct and the Bleeding Obvious.
  3. Circumscribe and then try to narrow the points of difference. If all else fails, paper over them to secure the main gains.
  4. In the final stage, work on holdouts to get them at least not to veto. The rule of consensus is weak; in the Westphalian scheme of international law, it takes all n countries to agree to adopt a legal instrument, but nothing stops (n-1) from going into another room and making their own.

It doesn’t always work, of course. That’s why international organisations produce a lot of stuff that stops at point 2, and just recycles commonplaces. But in a fair number of cases, it does eventually get results.

Climate change is not exceptional but a textbook example. The 1992 Rio treaty proclaims a near-tautology:

The ultimate objective of this Convention and any related legal instruments that the Conference of the Parties may adopt is to achieve, in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Convention, stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.

Who could be against “dangerous anthropogenic interference”? So nobody was, including the US Senate.

Rio begat Kyoto, which failed, and after a good many false starts Kyoto begat Paris. Paris is far from tautological. On the way, the climate diplomats and the secretariat did build a collective ethos, under which it was possible for the Foreign Minister of the tiny and powerless Marshall Islands to play a large role in making the final text more ambitious than many (including yours truly) had expected or even hoped. Trump’s holdout in Hamburg also illustrates point 4. The Paris Agreement is robust against a single defector, even a large and powerful one: the governments of the rest of the world have become convinced in the course of the lengthy process that climate change is a real threat to their vital national interests, that action to limit it is feasible and affordable, and that there is nothing to gain from defection. It’s not clear if even Trump really believes that the USA will gain anything objective from walking out, as opposed to his scoring points with the base he and the GOP have conned into this belief.

Multiple-player negotiations have their dirty tricks and hardball tactics too, but they are not the same as those in two-player ones. Consider the tactical problems faced by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell in shepherding ACA repeal through the House and Senate GOP caucuses. They have to deal with defectors from both conservative and moderate wings, a common situation in politics; just not as extreme as that faced by the master torturer of Gene Wolfe’s fantasy universe who accepted money from both the family of a murderer condemned to execution and from the family of the victim, stationed on opposite sides of the scaffold. Available tactics (to politicians not executioners) include exaggerating the strength of the opposing faction, feigning sympathy, and attempts to split the faction, as well as the usual threats and bribes.

The record is clear that Trump has been of no help to either Ryan or McConnell in this tricky challenge, and has several times got in their way. He simply does not understand it. He failed comprehensively in Hamburg; and he will continue to do so, as most problems of interest are now multilateral.

Against my helpful advice, Angela Merkel, who has no interest in sailing, rock-climbing or caving, stuck with the weak reef knot as her symbol of interdependence. At least it’s true.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

9 thoughts on “No end to winning”

  1. Climate was indeed a significant defeat for the US, and for Trump personally, because some commentators expected Saudi Arabia and Poland, a petro-state and a major coal exporter, to at least make sympathetic gestures. None were forthcoming. Some even expected Russia might make the US position easier, but Trump got no support from three states he had made some effort to woo.

    1. Thanks for the addition about Poland. But while the country is still heavily dependent itself on coal (77 mt annual consumption), its exports are quite small: 8 mt in 2008. I can't find a more recent number, but exports are down, prices are down, and stockpiles are up: all rather reminiscent of Appalachia, except with strong unions and sympathetic politicians.
      PS: Poland is not a member of the G20 as a state, only as a member of the EU.

      1. Ok, thanks for that. Ireland is/ was a big importer of Polish coal so it seems big to us. 🙂 Poland is a regular drag on EU emissions-reducing efforts, so if any country was to break ranks, it might have been it.

    2. If I were looking for G20 members to defend coal, I'd look to Australia, which is the world's largest coal exporter by some margin. (Add in Indonesia and Russia, and you reach about 2/3 of the world's total coal exports.) The ruling Liberal/National coalition in Australia is infamous for its spruiking of coal: a few months ago, the Treasurer literally brought a lump of coal to Parliament to show off to everyone, and it was passed around admiringly by the MPs. The fact that even this party has signed up to the Paris Agreement shows how fast the diplomatic Overton window has shifted.

      1. We may never know, but it's quite possible that Trump has helped the Overton shift because he's seen everywhere as such an incompetent loser. ErdoÄŸan has a serious quarrel with Washington over support of the Kurds against ISIS, a policy that pre-dated Trump, so we can't read a judgement on Trump into Turkey's Paris shenanigans. But Australia is evidence for a negative Trump effect. It needs China, India and the EU more, and they can deliver on promises and threats.

  2. Well, at least she didn't use a granny or worse, a thief knot. I'm amazed how many functioning adults I still run into who tie their shoes with a granny and have to keep tying them all day…

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