US Regains Global Leadership with Climate Change Summit

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

Despite its name, the virtual climate summit convened this week by President Joe Biden is not only about climate. It is also, say International Geneva observers, about international cooperation and multilateralism. After four years of Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on the multilateral system, Biden, Blinken and Kerry (BBK)—all experienced men with a life spent in foreign policy—have decided to reposition the US on the world stage.

And what better platform to do it than climate change? The issue enjoys massive public support around the planet. In spite of major tensions and potential rifts between the two countries, it is the area where China and the US can cooperate despite some major disputes in other areas. So, say diplomats in Geneva, if the virtual summit is about carbon emissions and the future of the Amazon forest, its scope and significance are actually much broader.

What they say, however, is that it will not be an easy ride. Washington’s multilateral ambitions will have to pass a serious stress test as it adopts in parallel a tough line against China and Russia. The signals from Beijing on climate change have been encouraging. But the rivalry will remain. With Russia, it remains to be seen.

Joe Biden will also have to tread quite skillfully to bring around or at least neutralize climate skeptics like Jair Bolsonaro, all the while placating his own domestic base critical to any concessions regarding deforestation.

Finally, by assuming a position of leadership on climate change, the US administration will have to deliver. The urgency is palpable, the Generation Greta climate activists don’t care much about the slow motion of global politics. They want action, deeds, and not lofty pronouncements that die because change, they are told, is politically difficult. Virtual speeches won’t be enough warned a large coalition of climate activists, including indigenous people, in a letter to the White House.

For them, and many others, the Earth Day summit must serve as the scene setter to the pivotal Glasgow Conference later this year.

Diplomats here, for the most part, salute Joe Biden and see the virtual summit as a prelude to a reinvigorated international cooperation in other domains.

One of them is, obviously, global health. In May, the World Health Assembly will have important decisions to make on the future of the WHO. Initiated before the pandemic, the first assessments of the organization’s performance and fitness for purpose will be presented. Deep reforms seem inevitable. The perennial issue of the agency’s funding will have to find an answer. Will the pandemic have been enough of a shock to push Member States to fund the WHO so it can really fulfill its ambitions?

A number of powerful Member States will also want the organization’s independence to be discussed as they consider that WHO was overly accommodating to China at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. On a smaller scale, recent revelations, including in The Geneva Observer, about the organization’s credibility and independence having suffered from the WHO having embedded one of its senior advisers, now under investigation, with the Italian health ministry will be on the agenda. And, say global health insiders in Geneva, all eyes will be focused on the US position regarding patent waiver, vaccine diplomacy and the future of COVAX.

Expectations about trade also run high within the diplomatic community.  Joe Biden has promised a US foreign policy that benefits the American workers—“Trump with manners,” some have said. But at the very least, the hope is that the time of the WTO’s sabotage is over and that plurilateral trade agreements will be the rule again rather than the exception.

So, America is back, even if it is still too early to tell how this will concretely play out against international cooperation and multilateral initiatives fatigue. Which in turn means “Geneva is back, even if it will be as the privileged battleground of the post-pandemic world,” says one Geneva observer to … another.

-JC, with additional reporting from Philippe Mottaz