Home > Essays in Diplomacy, Essays in Environmental and Climate Change Diplomacy, University life in Australia > US Diplomacy in COP15 and Challenges to Multilateral Climate Change Negotiation

US Diplomacy in COP15 and Challenges to Multilateral Climate Change Negotiation

2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference

2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference

by Michelle Leonardo*

(Last of 2 parts)

US Diplomacy in COP15: A cop-out?

The historic election of Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008 had a profound impact on the expectations of the international community as regards the future of climate diplomacy. Indeed, the change in leadership in the White House after eight years under George W. Bush contributed to a ‘renewed sense of optimism’ in the international community about finally reaching substantive agreement on a new global climate treaty by the end of 2009 at the COP15 in Copenhagen (Falkner 2010).

Obama essentially overturned the previous administration’s obstructive stance on the climate change crisis and committed the US to playing a more active and constructive role in multilaterally inclined foreign and climate policies (Falkner 2010, Purvis & Stevenson 2010). Obama also made his desires known to ultimately cap US emissions, and this alone brought much goodwill to the US, as it is historically the world’s biggest emitter of GHG. In this light, there are few who would disagree with the opinion that with Obama at the helm, the US has finally firmly re-engaged in climate diplomacy. This contributed to the high hopes pinned on the Copenhagen conference, where the US was expected to play a pivotal role in negotiations (Falkner 2010).

With the benefit of  hindsight, the US most certainly played a pivotal role in the COP15 – albeit, not in the general direction that most of the international community had anticipated. While public expectation was for the US to take the lead (alongside the EU) in securing a global agreement that would safeguard against the predicted consequences of climate change, the US proved to have acted in such a way as to stymie substantive negotiations on addressing the crisis (Carrington 2010). While the US, and specifically Obama was widely portrayed by the media as having rescued failing negotiations at Copenhagen (Christoff 2010), leaked diplomatic cables later revealed that the US had actually formed a secret alliance and had been in secret collusion with China to prevent reaching an international agreement that would legally bind the US and other industrialized countries to drastically reduce their emissions (Traufetter 2010).

The collaboration between the two countries began under the Bush administration, when the US’s senior climate negotiator engaged in backroom talks with China to work out a 10-year ‘framework of cooperation’ on energy and the environment between them. This dialogue was continued by the Obama administration throughout 2009, and the two countries secretly agreed to ensure that the outcome of negotiations in Copenhagen would be favorable to both Washington and Beijing. In essence, reports reveal that the US had advised China of the EU’s intent to strongly lobby for a legally binding global agreement, and that in response, China should simply assert that they and other large developing countries would ‘work hard to reduce emissions’ (Traufetter 2010). In addition, the leaked cables also show that the US had sought intelligence regarding the negotiating positions of Parties on the Copenhagen conference, including evidence of ‘UN environmental treaty circumvention’ and deals between countries (Carrington 2010). In this light, the US had also been accused of bribing poor countries with development aid in order to garner support for the Copenhagen Accord (Traufetter 2010, Newman 2010).

Challenges to Multilateral Climate Change Negotiation

Based on the above accounts, there are at least two crucial observations to be made on US diplomatic practice during the Copenhagen conference. The first is that the United States may in principle commit to combating climate change – however, it might not engage in significant action towards that end. The second is that in this regard, the US can and did make full use of the decision-making rules governing the UNFCCC to disrupt substantive negotiations on climate change.

  1. Domestic Constraints to US Diplomatic Practice

Putnam (1988) asserts that domestic and international politics are more often than not entangled in one another. To this end, Putnam (1988) proposes that the dynamics of many international negotiations can usefully be thought of as a ‘two-level game’. On the one hand, decision-makers play at the domestic level, where local lobby groups pursue their interests by pressuring government to adopt specific policies that will be favorable to them. In this regard, decision-makers seek and retain power by meeting those demands and building coalitions among those groups. On the other hand, decision-makers also play at the international level, where governments ‘seek to maximize their own ability to satisfy domestic pressures, while minimizing the adverse consequences of foreign developments’ (Putnam 1988). Decision-makers can ignore neither of the two games, which are played simultaneously, for as long as countries remain sovereign yet mutually dependent on each other. Further adding to the complexity of this two-level game is that moves (or decisions) that are rational for a player at one board – for example, the international level – may be ‘impolitic’ for the same player at the other board – that is, the domestic level (Putnam 1988). This could not be truer than for the US during the Copenhagen conference.

For example, many commentators on the ongoing climate talks would agree that there is no doubt that Obama, in his capacity as the US head of state, sincerely wants to move towards a clean energy economy. However, it also cannot be denied that for him, the domestic political path forward would be long and fraught with obstacles – indeed, getting the US Congress to support and ratify any commitments he makes internationally is not the least of them (Purvis & Stevenson 2010, Christoff 2010).

With regard to the Copenhagen conference, the US officially holds the position that it would be ‘interested in a legally binding agreement, provided that it was legally binding for both developed countries and major developing countries alike’ (Todd 2009, cited in Houser 2010). The US, in essence, is opposed to the binary distinction made by the UNFCCC, and especially the Kyoto Protocol, between developed and developing countries. The US argues that an ‘equitable, politically acceptable and environmentally effective treaty would need to allow for graduation as countries get richer and have greater capability to reduce emissions’ (Houser 2010). This view is one that is formally supported by Congress, and therefore guides and constrains the US bargaining position at the COP15.

One can hazard the guess, of course, that the true motive behind this position is the desire to preserve global economic dominance, especially with respect to emerging powers such as China. Though regardless of the underlying motivation, the above gives explanation for the US’s decision to engage in backroom negotiations with China. By asking China to take on the hard bargaining position at the COP15 and appearing adamant about the US commitment to pursuing a strong climate change response, the US was able to satisfy domestic pressures on its back while at the same time preserving its international reputation.

  1. Loopholes in the UNFCCC Decision-Making Rules

The Copenhagen conference also brought to the forefront one of the weaknesses of the UNFCCC’s decision-making rules, specifically its reliance on consensus building, which means that all countries must approve a particular decision before it can be officially adopted (Christoff 2010, Dimitrov 2010). This rule can be thought of as a double-edged sword – on the one hand, the positive implication of this is that each country has an effective veto and even a single country’s opposition can prevent the formal uptake of policy decisions. This rule also ‘promotes sovereign equality of nations and provides a valuable safeguard against powerful countries imposing decisions on the small and weak ones’, allowing the latter to assert their needs against the pragmatism of stronger countries (Dimitrov 2010, Christoff 2010). This is evident in the Copenhagen conference where the adoption of the Copenhagen accord was, for all intents and purposes, prevented by the resistance of only seven relatively small and/or weak countries (that is, Tuvalu, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, Sudan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia). At the same time, however, consensus building lowers the probability of a strong global climate change response. As was mentioned earlier, almost any legally binding climate agreement would have considerable and differing geopolitical and/or socioeconomic impacts, so opposition by at least some countries is almost certain (Dimitrov 2010).

In this regard, it can be seen that the UNFCCC’s decision-making rules ‘almost encourage the collapse of negotiations into [simple] procedural games’  (Christoff 2010). This paper argues that the US, in colluding with China to oppose any proposal for a legally binding agreement, took advantage of the UNFCCC’s procedural rules to better block any outcomes that may not be acceptable to Washington. Indeed, at the opening of the COP15, a proposal was put forward by Papua New Guinea to implement a three-fourths majority voting rule in cases where consensus proved impossible. This was recommended on the justification that ‘consensus means that any agreement [achieved in Copenhagen] can only aspire to the lowest common denominator amongst [the Parties]. In the face of this growing whirlwind of disaster, making decisions based only upon the lowest common denominator is beyond irresponsible, it’s gravely negligent’. Unsurprisingly, the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected (Dimitrov 2010).

A Note on the Way Forward

In this regard, this paper suggests that the climate change crisis may be better addressed through either or both of the following: (1) supplementing the UNFCCC as a multilateral platform with bilateral or regional climate change forums, and (2) seeking a revision to the UNFCCC decision-making rules. Indeed, the emerging literature on the Copenhagen conference reveals that Parties to the UNFCCC are already recognizing the limits of the UNFCCC as the primary forum for climate negotiations – with proposals to convene in smaller country blocs or coalitions to break political stalemates (for example, Friends of the Chair) and to change the conference’s voting structure (as just described above).



In conclusion, this paper presented an overview of the controversial issues surrounding the debate on global climate change response. It described the roots of the Copenhagen conference and identified at which particular points in the negotiations Parties reached a deadlock. The paper also provides an account of how negotiations were recovered . This paper placed particular focus on the US diplomatic practice during the conference to assess the effectiveness of multilateralism as a diplomatic tool for addressing the climate change crisis. In summary, this paper argued that multilateralism as institutionalized in UNFCCC processes is inefficient as a means for addressing the crisis because: (1) effective climate change response requires collective action at the international level, but commitments by states to that collective action are largely constrained by their domestic geopolitical and/or socioeconomic interests, and (2) the decision-making rules that govern the UNFCCC are susceptible to being taken advantage of that reduce substantive negotiations into simple procedural games.


*Michelle Leonardo recently graduated with a dual  Master of Diplomacy/Master of Environmental Management and Development  at the Australia National University. She received  the James Ingram prize for excellence in the 2011 Master’s class at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy (APCD) as well as the Elspeth young prize for social contribution at Crawford School of Economics and Government. She is also  a recipient of the 2009 Australia Leadership Award (ALA) scholarship grant.  Michelle is a guest blogger of the Reflective Diplomat.


Carrington, D 2010, ‘Wikileaks cables reveal how US manipulated climate accord’, The Guardian, 03 December 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,

Christoff, P 2010, ‘Cold climate in Copenhagen: China and the United States at COP15’, Environmental Politics, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 637-656.

Dimitrov, RS 2010, ‘Inside UN climate change negotiations: the Copenhagen conference’, Review of Policy Research, vol. 27, no. 6, pp. 795-821.

Falkner, R 2010, ‘Getting a deal on climate change: Obama’s flexible multilateralism’, in N. Kitchen (ed.) Obama Nation? US Foreign Policy One Year On, LSE Ideas Special Report, LSE Ideas, London, UK, pp. 37-41.

Houser, T 2010, ‘Copenhagen, the accord, and the way forward’, Peterson Institute for International Economics Policy Brief, viewed 25 May 2011,

Newman, A 2010, ‘Wikileaks reveal US and EU climate bullying, bribery, espionage’, The New American, 06 Dec 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,

Purvis, N & Stevenson, A 2010, ‘Rethinking climate diplomacy: new ideas for transatlantic cooperation post-Copenhagen’, Brussels Forum Paper Series, The German Marshall Fund of the United States, viewed 18 May 2011,

Spak, B 2010, ‘The success of the Copenhagen accord and the failure of the Copenhagen conference’, American University Washington, viewed 18 May 2011,

Traufetter, G 2010, ‘The US and China joined forces against Europe’, Spiegel Online International, 08 Dec 2010, viewed 20 May 2011,


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