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Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2007

A question of G8 legitimacy

Viewed from the media coverage of the Group of Eight Summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, the gathering was dominated by three main issues: environment, missile defense and clashes between demonstrators and police.

At first glance, these three issues may appear unrelated, but under the surface they are all linked by a common thread. Behind them all lie questions about the legitimacy and credibility of G8 governments at home and abroad.

In Europe, for example, particularly Germany and the Scandinavian countries, environmental issues are now a core test of the governments' domestic legitimacy and credibility.

The fact that Germany, the chair of this year's summit, put environmental issues at the top of the agenda indicates the extent to which the German government's legitimacy depends on its commitment to tackling environmental problems. Indeed, Europe as a whole has been facing major problems of legitimacy and credibility in relation to environmental issues, which are closely linked to the question of whether the European Union can act as a united entity.

Why did European countries insist on setting a unified target for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions?

A determination to exercise global leadership was certainly one factor, but even more significant was the need to unite the whole of Europe around a common goal. In other words, the credibility of European integration and the EU's international legitimacy and credibility hinged on Europe's ability to take collective action to tackle climate change.

The 2007 summit also provided some subtle insight into the U.S. government's legitimacy problems. The Bush administration had previously derived its domestic legitimacy from its antiterrorism policies and, by extension, from the war in Iraq. Also in the international arena, it held that any U.S. action was justified by the global fight against terrorism.

As the war in Iraq became a quagmire and the link between the war and the fight against terrorism became less and less clear, however, the U.S. administration was forced to stop relying on the fight against terrorism to legitimize its actions before both domestic and international audiences. As a result, this fight was not one of the core themes at the Heiligendamm summit.

Yet the United States neither was in the position nor had the intention to lead global efforts to tackle environmental problems. The summit in Germany thus served to highlight uncertainties surrounding the U.S. administration's domestic legitimacy and the international credibility of its leadership.

What was the significance of the Heiligendamm Summit for Russia?

The Russian government has sustained its domestic legitimacy and credibility thanks to a form of nationalism and to the country's revival as a major power. But when Russia overplays its hand, it loses its international legitimacy and credibility.

In its foreign policy, therefore, Russia has striven to strike a balance between the policy that caters to Russian nationalism on one hand and the diplomacy for pursuing cooperation with other countries. This dual nature of Russian policy was on clear display at the summit.

What did the summit achieve when viewed not from the perspective of major powers like the EU, the U.S. and Russia, but from that of civil society?

African nations held their own summit in Mali, while Greenpeace staged protests at sea, and tens of thousands of people took part in demonstrations some distance from the summit venue, some of them clashing with police.

What did all of this mean? The answer is that the political arena as dominated by major powers — the very political process itself — is losing credibility and legitimacy. People are questioning both the effectiveness of the G8 process and the international legitimacy of the G8 as a forum.

Television and newspaper coverage of citizens' actions at the summit focused mostly on the clashes between demonstrators and police and on Greenpeace's highly visible stunts, yet on the Internet a wide range of nonprofit, nongovernmental and other organizations made their voices heard loud and clear, and there is growing communication and even cooperation among these groups.

Online news coverage of the G8 has become far removed from that provided by mainstream journalism. This is a sign of how citizens are calling into question the legitimacy of the G8.

Filling the political vacuum left by the 2007 G8 Summit — as seen in the gap between mainstream and Internet media coverage — will be the biggest challenge for Japan in hosting next year's Hokkaido Toyako Summit.

Kazuo Ogoura, a political science professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and former Japanese ambassador to Vietnam, South Korea and France, is president of the Japan Foundation.

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