[lg policy] At Climate Talks, Three Letters That Almost Sank the Deal

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Mon Dec 14 16:39:47 UTC 2015

('Shall' vs. 'should')


  At Climate Talks, Three Letters That Almost Sank the Deal
2015-12-14T09:18:36-05:00 December 14, 2015

PARIS — In the 11th hour before the landmark climate deal was approved on
Saturday, three letters threatened to derail years of calculated
negotiations and two weeks of intense diplomacy — those that made “should”
into “shall.”

Those two words may seem disarmingly similar, but on the international
stage, they are worlds apart in terms of the diplomatic meaning
they carry. The legally binding “shall” stopped the United States cold when
it showed up on Saturday in what was to be the final draft of the historic

Throughout the process, the longer and less binding “should” was a
deliberate part of the international agreement, put there to establish that
the richest countries, including the United States, felt obligated to pony
up money to help poor countries adapt to climate change and make the
transition to sustainable energy systems. “Shall” meant something
altogether different, American officials said.

When “shall” was spotted in the document on Saturday, Secretary of State
John Kerry called his French counterpart and made it clear that unless a
switch was made, France could not count on American support for the

“I said: ‘We cannot do this and we will not do this. And either it changes,
or President Obama and the United States will not be able to support this
agreement,’ ” Mr. Kerry told reporters after delegates had accepted the
deal by consensus Saturday night, amid cheering and the celebratory
stamping of feet.

In the world of diplomatic negotiations, seeking a culprit or trying to
ferret out ill intention from another party could have spelled doom for an
effort that the French and the Americans were equally eager to see succeed.

With talks already running past their Friday deadline, the French conceded
the change of wording had simply been “a mistake.” By humbling the “shall”
to the status of a typo, it could swiftly be “fixed” and replaced by the
more benign “should.”

The fix made, within hours, the 31-page text was presented and adopted. The
French had succeeded; the Americans were appeased.

“It was a genuine – it was a mistake,” Mr. Kerry, a seasoned diplomat, said
with finality. “I am convinced.”

Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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