December 30, 2009 2:00 am
It could go down in history as the moment that defined the new, multipolar world.
At 7pm on the final evening of the Copenhagen climate conference, Barack Obama, the US president, walked into an unscheduled meeting with Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, and the leaders of India, Brazil and South Africa. "Mr Premier, are you ready to see me? Are you ready?" asked Mr Obama.
During the next two hours, the five leaders and their advisers ended two weeks of diplomatic deadlock by thrashing out a tentative deal on global warming that became known as the Copenhagen Accord. Conspicuously absent from the room was the European Union and Japan. America's two main postwar allies were left on the sidelines as Mr Obama cut a deal with China and other emerging economies.
"We've been taught some lessons about the realities of the so-called multipolar world," Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, said. "These lessons will have to be taken into account when we go for a more comprehensive global agreement."
Until the US-brokered compromise, the conference had been characterised by stalemate and bickering between rich countries and the big emerging economies, with neither bloc dominant nor united enough to prevail.
Poorer countries, meanwhile, revelled in their role as swing voters between the rival powers.
Writing in the FT, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, senior director for policy and programmes at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, said the climate conference heralded an "age of transition" in international relations. "Decisive action is inhibited as the power structures of a new world order are only just emerging and thus produce insecurities about where power rests," he said. "Copenhagen was multipolarity as chaos."
The EU had hoped to use its much-trumpeted pledge to deepen emissions cuts as a bargaining chip to coax the US and China into stronger action.
Instead, Mr Obama brushed aside EU demands and forged a non-binding deal that José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, derided for its "commitment to the lowest common denominator".
Some might argue it was a telling indictment of Europe's failure in Copenhagen that, when Mr Barroso announced the EU's grudging backing for the accord on the final night of the conference, some journalists in the front row slept through the whole event.
"Europe is the big loser from Copenhagen," wrote Mr Brockhoff. "Climate has been the one issue where Europe has led the world. In the end, the continent was too weak to succeed when it counted."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.