Obama in Beijing, through a Copenhagen Lens

Last month, in the wake of President Obama’s first visit to China, the White House and its supporters in the commentariat lashed out at reporters – like me! – who had judged the visit a failure on the basis of a lack of tangible accomplishments.  It was suggested that reporters – like me! – who focused on immediate gains simply didn’t understand “how China works,” that negotiations and relationships take time, and that – really – we should all focus on speculating about precisely what happened in closed door meetings that we weren’t invited to attend. This opinion was fleshed out most completely by an un-named White House official whom my friend Jim Fallows interviewed at his Atlantic blog. In it, she tells him:

Discussions with the Chinese just don’t offer dramatic breakthrough moments. It’s water on a stone. They don’t reveal their Eurekas to you. While you’re there you get fairly predictable responses. Next time you go back and get a little different treatment.

Judgments will be borne out over time. Will they cooperate or not on Iran? Will they be spoilers or not on climate change? On North Korea? Rebalancing their economy? None of those is a one-day story. The only fair way of evaluating results will be over time.

I guess it depends on how you define “over time,” but – all things considered – I think we’ve now had enough time – and a UN sponsored summit – to judge whether or not the climate side of the equation benefited from the approach that Obama took in Beijing. My friend Charlie McElwee of the essential China Environmental Law Blog tweeted it best, the other day, I think: “One thing is clear, those who said US press missed significant progress on climate made by Hu & Obama at their summit were dead wrong.” For those who have been too busy with holiday cheer, the evidence for this judgment is rife, including a contentious discussion on whether or not Barack Obama purposefully “barged in” on a private meeting between the Chinese premier and the leaders of several other developing nations after having been stood up, publicly, earlier in the day. I won’t bother linking to all of the various articles out there depicting the unpleasant and unfruitful showdown between the US and China (just google/bing away), or the widespread consensus that the showdown (combined with Chinese intractability in general), was a major reason that Copenhagen went awry. Let it just be said, that an era of good feelings between the US and China on climate change didn’t descend upon Copenhagen. Or, as a friend who knows what he’s talking about, emailed the other day:

The image of Chinese and US officials sitting down together at Copenhagen basking in the glow of their new friendship and jointly crafting an agreement that would save the world from climate change has about as much connection to reality as a Chinese Great Leap Forward propaganda poster.

[UPDATE 12/23: Indeed. The reality of the negotiations – China maneuvering to torpedo the accord and blame it on the US – is best reported by Mark Lynas of the Guardian, who was in the room for the end game. Essential reading for US diplomats still under the impression that the US-Chinese relationship responds to quiet diplomacy.]

Over the last few weeks I’ve written several posts suggesting why I expected China to be a barrier to a strong Copenhagen agreement (in short: the Chinese government in Beijing cannot control provincial and local governments, noted here and here), and not one of those had anything to do with the good relations that may or may not have been developed during President Obama’s November visit to Beijing. Whether or not that means that I understand China as well as the people who insisted that short-term thinkers on China don’t “get” what Obama was doing in Beijing, well, I’ll leave that judgment to time, as well (on other issues, Iran in particular, the visit seems to have helped; on others, like the RMB, it hasn’t – yet). Still, if it wasn’t obvious to the White House and its defenders, prior to Copenhagen, that China pursues its national interest, vigorously, and above all else, without regard to whatever good feelings might have been generated behind closed doors in Beijing, and the needs of other developing nations, surely it is now?

[Addendum: John Lee has a very good piece in FP on China, Copenhagen, compliance, and statistics. I concur, wholeheartedly.]


  1. Or to rephrase your last question, can the White House and its defenders own up to their gullibility about China’s focused self-interest? Perhaps they are culturally incapable of doing so.

  2. never saw an international meeting spun soooo many ways as this one … the result, all there is, is transparency of agenda, everybody’s vested interest in being right. including commentators … yikes

  3. Sad that this isn’t getting as mnay commments as your Haagen Dazs post. That might be the problem don’t you think?

  4. I think Obama played it very well, both in China and at Copenhagen – but when China has the strategic advantage of not wanting anything to happen or to succeed, then I don’t know how anyone could counteract that over the short term. I think Jim Fallows was right on this. But if I was Obama I would now invite the Dalai Lama over for New Years Eve in Hawaii. Maybe Grandpa Wen would get the message.

  5. Jay – I agree with your that China had the strategic advantage, and that placed the US in a tough box. Alas, my sense is that the Obama administration was really under the impression that they could convince China – in the spirit of global cooperation – to shift their position. And that strike me as hopelessly naive, and a strategic disadvantage for the US. At a minimum, Obama lost the PR side of the battle. Well played by the Chinese, I suppose. That noted – I’m with you on the Dalai visit to the Big Island. Long overdue.

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