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Starsky and Hutch Take Control

Obama and Clinton on their way to a joint event in June 2008. Obama and Clinton on their way to a joint event in June 2008.

Reprinted with permission from Simon and Schuster

Book: Hard Choices

Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Publishers: Simon and Schuster

Pages: 656

Price: Rs. 999

What happened when US President Barack Obama gatecrashed a secret meeting at the 2009 Copenhagen conference on climate change, attended by world leaders including former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

No! No! No!” the Chinese official said, waving his arms across the doorway. The President of the United States was barging uninvited into a closed meeting with the Premier of China — and there was no way to stop him.

When you’re a senior official representing the United States abroad, let alone the President or Secretary of State, every movement is carefully planned and every door opens on cue. You get used to being whisked through busy city centres in motorcades, bypassing customs and security at the airport, and never having to wait for an elevator. But sometimes protocol breaks down and diplomacy gets messy. That’s when you have to improvise. This was one of those times.

President Obama and I were looking for Premier Wen Jiabao in the middle of a large international conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Denmark. In December 2009, that charming city was cold, dark, and uncharacteristically tense. We knew that the only way to achieve a meaningful agreement on climate change was for leaders of the nations emitting the most greenhouse gases to sit down together and hammer out a compromise — especially the United States and China. The choices and trade-offs confronting us would be difficult. New clean energy technologies and greater efficiencies might allow us to cut emissions while creating jobs and exciting new industries, and even help emerging economies leapfrog the dirtiest phases of industrial development. But there was no getting around the fact that combating climate change was going to be a hard political sell at a time when the world was already reeling from a global financial crisis. All economies ran primarily on fossil fuels. Changing that would require bold leadership and international cooperation.

But the Chinese were avoiding us. Worse, we learned that Wen had called a “secret” meeting with the Indians, Brazilians, and South Africans to stop, or at least dilute, the kind of agreement the United States was seeking. When we couldn’t find any of the leaders of those countries, we knew something was amiss and sent out members of our team to canvass the conference center. Eventually they discovered the meeting’s location.

After exchanging looks of “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” the President and I set off through the long hallways of the sprawling Nordic convention center, with a train of experts and advisors scrambling to keep up. Later we’d joke about this impromptu “footcade”, a motorcade without the motors, but at the time I was focused on the diplomatic challenge waiting at the end of our march. So off we went, charging up a flight of stairs and encountering surprised Chinese officials, who tried to divert us by sending us in the opposite direction. We were undeterred. Newsweek later described us as “a diplomatic version of Starsky and Hutch.”

When we arrived outside the meeting room, there was a jumble of arguing aides and nervous security agents. Robert Gibbs, the White House Press Secretary, got tangled up with a Chinese guard. In the commotion the President slipped through the door and yelled, “Mr. Premier!” really loudly, which got everyone’s attention. The Chinese guards put their arms up against the door again, but I ducked under and made it through.

In a makeshift conference room whose glass walls had been covered by drapes for privacy against prying eyes, we found Wen wedged around a long table with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and South African President Jacob Zuma. Jaws dropped when they saw us.
“Are you ready?” said President Obama, flashing a big grin. Now the real negotiations could begin.

***

It was a moment that was at least a year in the making. In our 2008 campaigns both Senator Obama and I highlighted climate change as an urgent challenge for our country and the world, and we offered plans to curb emissions, improve energy efficiency, and develop clean energy technologies. We tried to level with the American people about the hard choices to come while avoiding the old false choice between the economy and the environment.

The problems posed by global warming were evident, despite the deniers. There was a mountain of overwhelming scientific data about the damaging effects of carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases. Thirteen of the top 14 warmest years on record have all come since 2000. Extreme weather events, including fires, heat waves, and droughts are measurably on the rise. If this continues, it will cause additional challenges, displacing millions of people, sparking competition over scarce resources such as fresh water, and destabilising fragile states.

Once in office, President Obama and I agreed that climate change represented both a significant national security threat and a major test of American leadership. We knew that the United Nations would hold a major climate conference at the end of our first year in office and that it would be an opportunity to galvanise broad international action. So we began laying the groundwork.

This was part of a bigger story about how our foreign policy had to change. During the Cold War, Secretaries of State could focus nearly exclusively on traditional issues of war and peace, such as nuclear arms control. In the 21st century we’ve also had to pay attention to the emerging global challenges that affect everyone in our interdependent world: pandemic diseases, financial contagion, international terrorism, transnational criminal networks, human and wildlife trafficking — and, of course, climate change.

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