The Next Steps for Climate Diplomacy in the Wake of Cancun

by John Prandato | December 21st, 2010 | |Subscribe

Since the conclusion of last year’s UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, doubt surrounding the efficacy of the multilateral negotiating process had been steadily gaining momentum, and the criticism was set to explode in the event of failure in Cancun. Last December, after two years of unrealistically ambitious expectations, the Copenhagen Accord was cobbled together in the eleventh hour by President Obama and a handful of other heads of state, putting an end to a disappointing two weeks of controversy, chaos, and finger-pointing. The New York Times’ Andrew Revkin described watching events play out in Copenhagen to be “like witnessing the derailment of a slow freight train on a curve that could be seen to be too sharp well ahead of time.” By all accounts, the mood at this year’s conference at Cancun’s Moon Palace resort was much more cooperative, and the resulting set of decisions, the Cancun Agreements, is being lauded as a sensible and balanced compromise, albeit an imperfect one. Nevertheless, support for a move away from the UN process in favor of a bottom-up approach based on national policies and bilateral engagement will surely continue, and deservedly so. The Cancun Agreements can serve as the blueprint for an eventual legally-binding successor to the Kyoto Protocol. But there is still much progress to be made – and a wide gap to be bridged between stated commitments and scientifically-recommended action – that will require simultaneous action on several diplomatic tracks.

Even if the Cancun conference had not produced such an unexpectedly favorable result, the UN process deserves to be preserved. The all-inclusive forum is likely the best means of addressing certain issues affecting many of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries, particularly adaptation, clean energy technology transfer, and deforestation. Furthermore, the perception that success hinges on the adoption of a legally-binding treaty is false. It is important not to downplay the ability of “soft law” political agreements to produce tangible results. Besides, without the political will in the U.S. Senate, any internationally-binding treaty would be irrelevant, and the woes of New START should shed any lingering hope that a climate change treaty stands a chance of Senate ratification in the foreseeable future. And even in the absence of legislation, the U.S. has the capacity, through federal regulation and aggressive state and local initiatives, to come very close to meeting its short-term emissions reduction commitments (17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020). At that point, it is not unreasonable to envision the emergence of the political will for strong legislative action, especially if successful state or regional efforts present a sound model for a national initiative. (more…)

Belarus: When and How Western Engagement Matters

by Volha Charnysh | December 20th, 2010 | |Subscribe

The only element of uncertainty in Belarus’s 2010 presidential election was supposed to be the percentage of votes resulting in Lukashenka’s victory. However, the unexpected happened: tens of thousands of people came into the streets in protest of the election results. The unusually high turnout at the protest is a sign that political changes are near. This may be the time when the US and the EU support could make a real difference in reshaping the domestic balance of power in Belarus. The protesters were brutally beaten by the riot police, but their display of courage should not be allowed to fail.

Given the weakness of civil society, the consequences of challenging Lukashenka’s power, and the sizes of protests at the previous presidential elections, the number of people who came out on the cold winter streets in Minsk is truly remarkable. The Belarusian people stood up in the largest act of protest since 1996 at the time when the West began to praise Lukashenka as a guarantor of stability and seemed ready to give up on reforming the authoritarian country. Stability indeed is what they are getting with Lukashenka in power as there is no doubt of who wins elections and what happens to the regime’s opponents.  But in a country like Belarus it is not stability, but change – and a big one — that the West should be hoping for.

Lukashenka won 79.7 percent of the votes, according to the election results released by the government Monday. One can only speculate to what extent the election was rigged. Prevailing over nine opponents who have no media access seems easy enough even without cheating. However, it is notable that the people known for falsifying the election results in 2001 and 2006 have remained in charge of counting the votes in 2010, and the playing field is far from level. (more…)

The Risk is Acceptable

by Gil Schwartz | December 14th, 2010 | |Subscribe

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Now that direct peace talks have officially collapsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to take unilateral steps towards statehood, including appealing to the United Nations. His hope is to achieve independence by the end of 2011. So far, the United States has been wary of any unilateral actions, preferring a comprehensive peace deal. To help achieve a negotiated peace, however, President Obama must dramatically increase security assistance to the Palestinian Authority and exert significant pressure on the Netanyahu administration.

President Abbas is dangerously close to being labeled a failure. The Palestinian Authority has effectively lost control of the Gaza Strip since Hamas’ takeover in 2007. In the West Bank, Israel continues to build settlements on disputed lands and has nearly completed its security barrier. The Palestinian economy is weak and dependent on freedom of movement allowed by Israeli security forces. Peace negotiations, meanwhile, have little prospects for success given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. At the age of 75 and with no clear successor, Abbas could use a unilateral declaration of independence as a means to overcome the current deadlock and establish a legacy as the father of a nation.

Yet President Abbas understands this approach is fraught with peril. Israel has made it clear that it will not recognize a Palestinian state without a negotiated peace deal. Should Abbas unilaterally declare independence, Israel has threatened to formally annex large parts of the West Bank and annul past peace agreements. Given its near complete control over the Palestinian economy, Israel could effectively prevent any independent state from becoming viable. Abbas knows unilateral independence will make him the father of a failed state and an alternative path for progress must be found. (more…)

Sudan’s Referendum: Beyond the 11th Hour

by Taylor Jo Isenberg | December 10th, 2010 | |Subscribe

At least the ballot looks easy enough: one hand for Southern Sudan’s independence, two hands for unity with the north and regime in Khartoum. Yet Sudan’s upcoming referendum- now less than a month away – is anything but. The United States and international community are pressuring Khartoum to live up to the conditions set forth in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between North and South Sudan, pulling out all the diplomatic stops to ensure a peaceful vote. Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, and an endless stream of celebrities have made sure the media light – and therefore world opinion – is focused heavily on President Omar al-Bashir’s regime and Sudan. Yet when considering the sustainability of a peaceful and prosperous future, the emphasis on the referendum could be a double edged sword. A successful vote is the precipice, but the substance of peace will occur during full implementation of the results in the following months. If the international community only maintains interest long enough to engage in crisis management, what will hopefully be achieved on January 9th shall be short-lived. (more…)

A New START needed for an old political game

by Brian Vogt | December 8th, 2010 | |Subscribe

There has been much attention in the lame duck session of Congress on whether Democrats and Republicans will find any common ground.  Will they compromise on tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits? During a time of war, will gays and lesbians continue to be denied the opportunity to serve their country in the military?  Will the children of illegal immigrants continue to be denied the chance to pay taxes and seek the American dream? There is much work to be done in the final weeks of this year.  Democrats and Republicans have different approaches to some of these issues.  That’s to be expected.  However, there’s one issue on which pretty much all Democrats and Republicans outside of Congress agree – the New START Treaty.  Yet, it’s being held hostage in the Senate for purely partisan reasons.

Particularly on domestic issues, there are fundamental differences between the parties that generate intense disagreement.  Such discord can be healthy in a democracy as it provides clear choices to voters.  What is damaging is when political leaders lose sight of  their core values and emphasize winning at all costs.  When a policy disagreement becomes a zero sum game in which a win by one’s opponent is considered a loss by the other, gridlock ensues. Before long, the policy matters less than a mark in the win column.  This is what has happened with the New START treaty.

Sometimes both sides are at fault.  They both dig in their heels. In other situations, one side demonstrates willingness to negotiate and the other sees more political benefit from standing firm.  The latter is the situation we face today.  The Republican leadership (thought not all Republicans) in the Senate is playing political games with America’s national security.

The New START treaty is a follow-on treaty to the original START treaty negotiated in 1991 under George H. W. Bush that set limits on the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the United States.  Presidents Obama and Medvedev signed the New START treaty in April 2010.  Many viewed this as a sign of renewal of US-Russian relations and a small step towards President Obama’s stated goal of a nuclear free future.  It would reduce the number of strategic warheads to 1550 from the current limit of 2200 and establish new inspection procedures to ensure compliance.  It must be ratified by two thirds of the Senate. (more…)

All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.