G-7 Summit

       I think I’m the only reporter left in town, and from what I can tell everyone here seems very relieved. I certainly seem to get much better service with my press pass. Channel 2 News sampled merchants along the 16th Street Mall–a recently pedestrianized downtown boulevard close to summit activities–and found that, without fail, every one had lost a significant amount of revenue during the summit. Locals were scared away by the insistent and breathless gridlock alerts and government officials and reporters stuck to the free food and got their tchotchkes from the promotional bag they hand you when you pick up your credentials. Clearly, a lot of kids are going to be firing up Denver’s interactive economic briefing CD-ROM this weekend.
       Well, down to business and a communiqué analysis. Comparing an earlier draft of the document with the final version provides an interesting window on how the summit process works. It is immediately clear that much of the document has been precooked and fully homogenized for a while. This includes language on the process of globalization, the opportunities and challenges of aging populations, fighting infectious diseases, and even the Partnership for Development in Africa–a major U.S. initiative where two pages of text survived with just a couple of minor changes. This despite widespread press attention to the debate within the G-7 over the role of traditional development assistance versus the kind of auto-emancipation that we advocate. The reason for so little tinkering is that the Africa section is less a fully conceptualized blueprint, more a compilation of the differing views of the G-7 countries. It provides the illusion of thematic coherence but the truth is that no one knows if these various approaches to the laudable goal of improving the lives of Africans are compatible or mutually exclusive.
       What the changes do show–and they are not extensive–is that real discussion does take place around the table and that discussion leads to movement in the fault lines of international diplomacy. Some examples:
       In the draft text, Russia’s accession into the World Trade Organization is supported on the basis that it meets the commercial conditions for membership. In the final communiqué, the word commercial is dropped, a significant concession that shows how strongly the U.S. position on Russian integration into the West prevailed.
       Perhaps it was seeing the power of the state attorneys general on display for the tobacco agreement, but the Eight must have concurred that no one ever lost an election because they weren’t tough enough on crime. A single paragraph in the early draft on Transnational Organized Crime transmutes into a virtual treatise on the subject in the final communiqué. What was a general commitment to fight this millennial scourge becomes a “priority of the group for the foreseeable future.” New paragraphs appear on investigating, prosecuting, and punishing computer and high-tech crime, drug and firearms trafficking, and terrorism–this on top of existing language on these issues. Several lines are devoted entirely to a collective pat on the back for progress already achieved by the Eight in battling global crooks.
       On the environment, the European Union, who were looking for strong deadlines and levels for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, were steamrolled by the U.S. The text tells the story. A commitment to achieve emissions targets in the draft is softened to an “intention to commit” in the final communiqué. Because the Sherpas were unable to agree on a target prior to the summit, the draft text includes a series of bracketed proposals, most of them very specific commitments to timetables and precise and tough emission levels. The final text merely ends up calling for “reductions … by 2010”–more or less the U.S. position going into the summit. Although the argument is that these are issues that should be finalized in other forums, the Europeans wanted a deal in Denver and were angry they didn’t get one–but the dynamics at the table worked against them.
       The most compelling question, though, about the process is–does the G-7 matter? The University of Toronto has analyzed the compliance of the G-7 countries with their past commitments at summits, and they have found that barely 50 percent have been met over the years, and when you consider how bland and noncommittal most of the pronouncements are in the first place it’s not especially encouraging.
       On the other hand, it’s probably smart and useful for international leaders to meet and review the issues, not with a view to achieving breakthroughs but as a matter of housekeeping and good management. It should be a measure of progress that these events are becoming routine. The trouble is that, stuck in the Cold War mode, reporters cover anything with the word “summit” in it as breathlessly as a Nixon/Brezhnev meeting. By contrast, ordinary people are today increasingly as important as diplomats and statesmen in conducting the world’s business. I suspect that Bill Gates is going to have a greater impact on creating markets and developing trading relations in Africa than anything announced at Denver, and there has to be a better way of covering these issues and the growing list of nongovernmental players who are already at the epicenter of the global economy.
       Meanwhile, it’s on to the delights of Birmingham, England, for the 1998 summit, where, if memory serves me right, the international convention facility is basically in the middle of nowhere, in some fields adjacent to the freeway and the mainline railway station. So here’s to another five days in a windowless hall eating bad sandwiches and pestering irritated officials for nonexistent information on issues that matter less and less. But even the illusion of proximity to power sure beats not being there at all, and I suspect that none of us would miss it for the world.