International negotiations aren’t what they used to be. When Metternich convened the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the crowned heads of state (including the Czar, British King and various obscure dukes) spent six months wining and dining each other and did deals over late-night cards in the ballroom. Relieved at having got rid of Napoleon, the Austrian government picked up the tab.
130 years later, when Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met at Yalta, only a few select diplomats accompanied them. The world’s media were entirely absent: the Royal Air Force did not deem it necessary to shuttle them to the Crimea via Liberia and Egypt (Roosevelt’s approach route) or by flying boat through Gibraltar and the Dardanelles (as Churchill arrived). There was no civil society present when Churchill drew the post-war balance of power in Europe on a paper napkin and Stalin nodded his assent.
By contrast, Copenhagen 2009 has been, until the last 48 hours, an open, democratic process. The Bella Centre, a vast hangar on the outskirts of the Danish capital, has room for 15,000 people. Over 45,000 people applied for passes, most of them associated with non-governmental organisations. Even the official parties to the negotiation, who had preferential access to the centre, included many participants who were neither diplomats nor government figures. The delegation I went to see got me a ‘party’ badge. (I never found out if there was an ‘after-party’ badge).
The conference may be doomed to failure, but in part this reflects impossibly high expectations. A multilateral negotiation process, involving over 200 countries and many other non-state entities, cannot possibly lead to a mutually satisfactory ‘global deal’. Global deals, by their nature, involve small numbers of powerful people talking to each other in closed rooms. To be successful, they require a sense of urgency (even fear), extraordinary levels of gumption, a willingness to take risks even though the numbers and implications are unclear. We’ll know in the next 48 hours if those conditions were present.
The youth hostel I stayed in was handing out ‘Direct Action Handbooks’ to all comers, but the people who shared a dorm with me just looked very tired. The protests, in any case, tell a misleading story. There is…