Strategies in Long Negotiations: What We Can Learn from Climate Change by Christian Downie

June 18, 2014

Politics Public Policy

Climate Change

Many international negotiations, indeed many of the most significant in the post-war era, have been prolonged, stretching for years and sometimes decades. Although these negotiations seek to address some of the most critical problems facing the globe, we do not know much about them. Here, Dr Christian Downie looks at the lessons we can learn from international climate change negotiations.

Why long international negotiations matter

International negotiations may not be the most common topic for household discussions. But they do matter. Just ask those who sat down in Paris in 1919 at the end of World War I, or those who did the same in Potsdam in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. The outcomes of those negotiations literally changed the world, as countries were simultaneously erased and created on a map of the world.

International negotiations today may not be as dramatic  – though it could be argued that the international climate change negotiations are just as important  – but many continue to bubble away in the background on everything from trade to climate change. Some succeed and some fail, but many simply continue for years and even decades before they reach an outcome. The trade negotiations are one example, the law of the sea negotiations are another.

The current international climate change negotiations are perhaps the most perfect illustration. Since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and the entry into force of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in March 1994, states have been engaged in a seemingly endless negotiation process. Punctuated by agreement and acrimony, the only constant has been the continuation of the process.

So why do we know so little about long international negotiations? And why does it matter?

The thing is, while we know a lot about international negotiations that stretch for a month or a year, remarkably we know very little about long negotiations that stretch for years and sometimes decades.

This matters because the less we know about prolonged international negotiations the less likely states are to reach agreement; and without agreement in such negotiations the world will get warmer, trade talks will stall and future negotiations around food, water or security are more likely to end in impasse.

In short, the future of humanity will be at risk should some of the most significant current and future prolonged international negotiations fail.

With these thoughts in mind, in 2008, I attended my first international negotiation, in the old German capital, Bonn. As negotiators whispered to one another and raised motions and objections, it was difficult to know what was going on, and why. Why did some countries raise the same point repeatedly, or others refuse to move on to the next issue, until some seemingly minor piece of negotiating text was removed?

I was not sure at the time. But what did interest me, was what motivated these countries and their representatives? Why did they sometimes seek to cooperate and at other times obstruct progress? Did this reflect their interests? And, how and why did their behaviour change from Bonn to Bangkok and on to the next negotiating round?

The Politics Of Climate Change Negotiations

The Politics Of Climate Change Negotiations

What we can learn from the international climate change negotiations

Since then I have had the good fortune of asking those in the know, both as an academic and as a diplomat. After hours of interviews with hundreds of people engaged in these types of prolonged negotiations, including former government ministers, chief negotiators and presidential advisers, not to mention everyone from Greenpeace to Exxon, who lobby for very different outcomes, four things stand out:

  • First, in international negotiations states are still the most important actor. But, to briefly use the jargon of international relations, the state is more disaggregated than realists would ever contend, and international negotiations outcomes are shaped by more than the economic and security interests of states. Put differently, the state is not a monolith, it has many parts with many interests all trying to drag it in different directions as it prepares for international negotiations.
  • Second, despite what many international relations scholars may tell you, the preferences of states are fluid not fixed in long negotiations. As the years go on, things change. What one country is willing to sign one year may not be the same the next; even when the issues and the actors remain constant. Most studies ignore this because they do not look at what happens over time. In short, we need to better understand the temporal dimension in long negotiations.
  • Third, it doesn’t matter if you are the US President or an under-funded environmental organisation; in long negotiations there are opportunities to shape international negotiation outcomes. Because state preferences are fluid, they can change and any actor, big or small, weak or powerful, can use strategies to change them, and with them the outcomes of negotiations.

In the course of my work, I identified eight strategies that actors can use, but let me give you one example here; exploiting levels of engagement.

In long negotiations which actors are mobilised and which are not will change. Typically more powerful actors, such as a treasury department, or a powerful business group, will dominate discussions when they are actively engaged. For example, in the US, the Treasury view on what the US Government position should be prior to a negotiation tends to dominate that of the Environmental Protection Agency, even in climate change negotiations.

But they are not always engaged, sometimes the negotiation will simply not be on their agenda, a low priority, to which they have not devoted the time or resources. For example, in the first years of the Clinton administration, before the landmark agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed in 1997, the EPA was able to have the lion’s share of influence inside the US government because other agencies were not yet engaged.

Accordingly, other actors can exploit this lack of engagement because they are likely to have more influence when there is an absence of alternatives on the table. If an environmental NGO, for example, puts forward a new proposal to overcome a deadlock on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it will be more successful for the simple reason that there is no competing proposals.

  • Finally, returning to the questions I sought to answer back in 2008, in essence, why do countries do what they do in long negotiations? More often than not, the answer is domestic politics. Domestic politics drives state behaviour. That is not to say that international political factors don’t matter. Rather, it is that when countries front up to negotiations and decide what to sign, or to decide to change their position in future years, the reason most frequently appears to be a domestic political one. So if you want to change a country’s negotiating position, and perhaps even the ultimate international outcome, the best bet is to target their domestic political processes, especially if they are a big powerful player, like the US and China, who can steer international negotiations to their preferred outcomes.

Dr ChrisChristianDownietian Downie is a Vice Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales and a visiting Research Fellow at the Australian National University. Prior to his research appointments in 2014, Christian was foreign policy advisor to the Australian Government’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and a climate policy advisor to the Department of Climate Change.

His first book, ‘The Politics of Climate Change Negotiations‘ was published in January 2014.

The book is available for subscribing libraries on Elgaronline.

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