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Paul Knox PAUL

Hostage to the events of the week

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A bizarre ambassador for African aid

The Irish in U.S. altruism

The wonderful world of globo-wonkery: It's all in the acronyms

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And this guy's on our side

Ghosts of Seattle haunt the G8 in Okinawa

Monday, July 24, 2000

In the past few days, critics of summits of the G7 -- now, with Russia included, known as the G8 -- have concentrated their fire on a familiar target.

In Okinawa over the weekend the Japanese spent $800-million (U.S.), or $100-million per leader, putting on a grand show. But they could not get U.S. President Bill Clinton to stick around for longer than a minimum display of politeness required.

With the mind of the leader of the world's superpower preoccupied with the Middle East, that left an odd critical (and criticizable) mass of leaders at the table to discuss what the Japanese wanted to talk about. The agenda included some far-from-trivial items. Its central theme, according to the hosts, was global prosperity, peace of mind and world stability in the 21st century.

If those were the subjects, how much illumination could be expected from the lineup of leaders present?

Apart from Mr. Clinton, those at the table were the chiefs of four neighbour nations in Europe, all of whom know each other's views well since they meet almost every month; the leaders of Japan and Canada, neither of whom are known for their enthusiasm for metaphysical questions or international affairs; and the president of Russia, a man whose country made such a hash of the 20th century that it now properly belongs in the Third World, not the First.

Plainly, it is bordering on the pretentious for this bunch to be tackling these topics.

If the world in the next century is to be the property of particular nations, it would make much more sense to invite the leaders of China, India and Brazil to think great thoughts beside the Pacific than any of those present aside from Mr. Clinton. What the G7 used to consist of is the United States and its post-Second-World-War friends. What it now consists of is the same bunch of old pals plus Russia.

There is more to it than this, however. As the G7, sorry G8, slides into irrelevance, so its annual summits tend to (a) come up with fatuous agendas full of unrealizable aims and (b) as a counterpoint to this, actually deal with a very limited range of subjects.

At the last Canadian G8 summit, in Halifax in 1995, the principal items on the agenda were reform of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. They are still unresolved items in the international arena. But they can no more be discussed at a G8 summit because, as one leader explained, too many countries would be left out of the discussion and it would achieve nothing.

The same applies to a new round of trade liberalization talks. After the failure of the Seattle World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting, Okinawa would have been a good place for the leading countries to pledge their support for a new trade round. Except that they lead no more. After Seattle, they would not dare do such a thing.

The two things for which Seattle is remembered -- riots in the streets by those against globalization and a Third World revolt against being dictated to by the United States and Europe -- now blight summits.

In Okinawa, the G7 tried to deal with debt relief (let us exclude Russia from this since, on debt, it is itself a supplicant). They did not do it well, largely because they are haunted by the ghosts of Seattle.

The clamor in the streets has been for the Seven to get on with the business of forgiving debt. They should stop dragging their heels and start writing off $100-billion owed by 41 heavily indebted poor countries. Generally, in Okinawa, the G7 leaders behaved like the politicians they are, admitting that not enough had been done and criticizing the burdensome procedures put in place for countries seeking relief.

This makes sense only as a response to placating the "Seattle crowd." The reality is that debt relief is enormously complicated by the fact that the biggest debtor nations include some of the world's most misgoverned countries. If their governments do not have to service debt, they will have more money to buy weapons or put in Swiss bank accounts unless the bureaucratic process of making sure they allocate the money to reducing poverty is undertaken and completed and there are no loopholes.

The clamour in the street is to forgive the debt of the poor unconditionally. The leaders of the G7 -- to the extent that they have any pretensions to lead -- should not go along with this. Or not, at any rate, in a hurry.
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