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Saturday, June 7, 2003

Do G8 summits have value?

LONDON — The Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, cost a great deal in terms of time, effort and money. Was it worth it? Critics argue that nothing worthwhile emerged from the summit, that the communiques that had been drafted in advance were generally platitudinous and flatulent.

U.S. President George W. Bush showed his contempt for the whole affair and for French President Jacques Chirac, in particular, by leaving before the end of the meeting and spending less than 24 hours in France. Even the photo opportunities often left the impression that relations between the leaders were less than cordial.

The meeting, as usual, attracted antiglobalization protesters, anarchists and troublemakers who, having been prevented from getting anywhere near Evian, caused trouble and damage in Geneva — which is in Switzerland.

The original idea was that these summits should be an opportunity for an informal get-together where the leaders could exchange frank opinions in a kind of "fireside chat." The number of officials was to be kept to a bare minimum and official communiques were to be brief and related to actual discussions. Now each leader is accompanied not only by other ministers but also by hordes of officials and hangers-on. The media were there in full force and inevitably focused on differences rather than agreements.

The present G8 leaders are on bad terms personally. Bush apparently believes that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder broke his word and cannot be trusted. They do not seem to have exchanged a word. Bush clearly prefers Russian President Vladimir Putin to Chirac, whom he seems to regard as "a snake." British Prime Minister Tony Blair also seems, from one photo that appeared in a leading London paper, to regard Chirac with distaste if not loathing.

Such animosities may heal in time, but frosty exchanges over bottles of Evian water are unlikely to be the cure. Of course, our leaders ought to be able to be able to set aside personal feelings and concentrate on the substance, but they are only human.

In any case, what is the rationale for the present composition of the G8 "of industrialized countries?" Critics argue that neither Russia nor Canada qualifies as a major industrial power. What about China, India and Brazil? Why, among the European powers, should Spain be excluded?

Such criticism makes telling points, but the case for holding occasional summits of a limited number of world leaders continues to be valid even if a major effort should be made to return to a much more informal format. Clearly, the leaders of Russia and Canada cannot be uninvited, but if all delegations were limited to say not more than half a dozen people, it might be possible to add the leaders of a few other important states.

Misunderstandings can be ironed out and personal animosities can be overcome if some magnanimity can be shown. Even on this occasion, it seems possible that some rancor may have been reduced and some of the outsize egos of our leaders somewhat mollified.

There were probably some useful discussions. Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative, designed to restrict trade in weapons of mass destruction, does not seem to have been thought through properly. It would have been sensible if forewarning of the initiative had been given to G8 members, but it clearly deserves to be studied carefully.

It was unfortunate that Bush decided to cut short his stay at the summit, but the emphasis that he placed on trying to achieve progress on the Israel/Palestine problem was certainly welcome to summit participants.

At last, the president seemed to have decided to become personally involved in finding a settlement to the Arab-Israel dispute, which has been a major source of animosity in the Arab world toward America. Bush now seems prepared to put pressure on Israel as well as the Palestinians to make significant moves toward a peaceful settlement on the basis of two viable states. But sustained and consistent pressure will have to be maintained.

On economic growth and exchange-rate stability, nothing of significance seems to have been agreed, but the issues were presumably aired. There does not seem to have been any real progress over the main international trade issues. The Americans seem unwilling or unable to recognize that European concerns about genetically modified crops are not based on protectionism but are real, even if in American eyes the worries about GMC's environmental impact are not scientifically justified.

The American refusal to endorse the Kyoto Protocol, although a different issue, remains a sore point for the Europeans. The American demand for an end to all export subsidies on agricultural products deserved a considered response. Unfortunately, reform of the Common Agricultural Policy — which is an essential requirement for progress over agricultural trade — is a highly divisive issue in the European Union.

Bush seized the initiative over the response to the AIDS crisis, which in Africa has now reached epidemic proportions. But some skepticism remains about how much real progress can be achieved in terms of access by poorer countries to affordable medicines. G8 leaders at least endorsed in principle an agreement on plans for an African peacekeeping force.

There was unfortunately little sign that the deep divisions between American and European perceptions of the world have been bridged. The impression remains that Bush, despite occasional lip service toward the United Nations, will take a firm unilateralist stance and is determined that America alone will decide how to use its redoubtable firepower. It will not be deterred from doing what it thinks necessary in its own interests by international law as interpreted by a majority of states.

The Europeans were left with the impression that Bush is not in a listening mood and that multilateral approaches are only acceptable if they lead to endorsement of what the U.S. administration intends to do any way.

The summit did nothing to increase European unity over foreign and defense policy. Some of the cracks may have been papered over; but Bush — by his ostentatious visit to Poland, his "bear hug" with Putin, his coldness toward Chirac and his obvious contempt for Schroeder — seemed to underline his endorsement of U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's arrogant and undiplomatic comments on "old and new" Europe.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, as far as the British media were concerned, might just as well have not been there. Certainly no prominence was given to anything he might or might not have contributed to the summit.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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