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Looking for a Common Language at Copenhagen

We shouldn't be surprised to have seen so much parochialism at Copenhagen. For all that international relations have matured over the past several decades with the spread of a global consciousness, some things just don't change.

So much emphasis about the global summit at Copenhagen has been on the substance-climate change-that the format of the meeting has been overlooked. Yet in diplomacy, format is central. The messy, almost unmanageable configuration of the Copenhagen summit is here to stay. We need to learn to make the most of it.


Despite the aim of solving a problem facing the entire world, the summit's composition best resembles a hodgepodge of national-or what in the United States are called domestic-interest groups. To some extent this is true of any international gathering. But in this case, the aim of the summit has been undercut by the lack of a fundamental consensus on the rules, norms and style of "global" diplomacy.

Diplomatic summits can't bring results if those present don't share a common language or a common tradition, no matter how pressing the issue. They end up talking past each other.

With so many players at the table, summit meetings like this one have come to resemble rowdy legislatures with their emphasis on posturing for the home team. Whatever deals are struck usually happen in quiet conversations on the sidelines. But the size, complexity and tempo of such meetings tend to make these conversations extremely difficult to have in real time.

Some people have argued that, like it or not, global summits of this sort are an inevitable sign of the times. Globalization, they say, demands nothing less. Gone are the days of private games of chess among statesmen. We have finally adopted, in other words, what Woodrow Wilson once heralded as the New Diplomacy: open covenants openly arrived at-in the full glare of the 24-hour news cycle.

The New Diplomacy was tried back in Wilson's day, or soon after. The most notable attempts were the series of disarmament conferences sponsored by the League of Nations in the 1930s which followed a decade of similar naval arms talks. There were also conferences on subjects ranging from monetary policy to the narcotics trade. Nearly all of these efforts, like the League itself, were doomed by national-or, more precisely, nationalist-passions and interests.

Of course, none of this is new. Diplomatic conferences, once called congresses, date back to the earliest days of modern diplomacy in the fifteenth century. Comparable events took place even earlier, as any reader of Thucydides or Xenophon will know.

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The term "summit," however, is largely a Cold War invention. It was applied bilaterally: the leaders of the Soviet Union and the United States would parley from their respective heights of superpowerdom to manage both their relationship and the rest of the world.

It didn't take very long, however, for the term to migrate. By the late 1970s, the meetings of the more developed countries-then the G-5, later to become G-7, G-8 and now G-20-were called summits and even had "sherpas," specially designated officials in each government who, like their Himalayan namesakes, played the role of scouts and porters. They prepared agendas, coordinated policies and carried institutional memories. Such people are essential. If summits like the one at Copenhagen are going to succeed, they will need a professional cadre of global sherpas whose relationships with one another deepen over time.

In the meantime, summits will continue to proliferate. They now cover issues from conventional arms control, the environment, gender discrimination and drug trafficking. Today there are, at least in the United States, everything from jobs summits to AIDS summits to, presumably, summits about summits. Many end up being talking shops, producing little in the way of results.

This is in part because most of the delegates to such meetings are not professional diplomats but rather cabinet officers, politicians and "special envoys" whose primary, domestic constituencies may be the least amenable to the necessary tradeoffs involved in any diplomatic negotiation.

So we shouldn't be surprised to have seen so much parochialism at Copenhagen. For all that international relations have matured over the past several decades with the spread of a global consciousness, some things just don't change.

Kenneth Weisbrode

Kenneth Weisbrode is a historian at the European University Institute in Fiesole, Italy, and the author of The Atlantic Century (2009). He is a writer for the History News Service.

Reprinted with permission from the History News Service.