The Summit of Low Expectations

SAN DIEGO – In the run-up to President Barack Obama’s first visit to China next month, American and Chinese diplomats have been compiling lists of ongoing cooperative endeavors in case no new agreements materialize. Indeed, that outcome appears likely.

The problem is as much the fault of the United States as it is of the Chinese. Whereas agreements require hard work on both sides, the Americans are having a difficult time negotiating their country’s domestic political obstacles in time to engage effectively with China.

With the Copenhagen climate summit only weeks away, forging a commitment on climate change is the most pressing challenge. The US and China are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. Obama administration officials had been hoping that bilateral cooperation to tackle this common threat might deepen the US-China partnership in the same way that the common Soviet threat brought Nixon and Mao together in 1972.

If Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao could agree about what actions their countries would take, and what explicit commitments they would make as part of a global agreement, the rest of the world would follow. Unfortunately, the two countries stand on opposing sides on climate change.