Hostage to the events of the week
By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update
CALGARY Wise veterans of global affairs know there's a basic truth about international summitry: Something always comes along to upset your plans.
This year, at the Group of Eight summit in Kananaskis, Alta., that something was a threesome: the Middle East, U.S. market chaos and snags over a plan to keep rusting Russian weapons out of the hands of terrorists. The result is that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has had to fend off a host of questions some of them fair, some of them unfair about whether his cherished "Africa agenda" will be derailed.
The short answer to the question is no. There was never any chance that Africa would be the only topic of the summit or even the only big topic. G8 meetings are always multifaceted, and they're always hostages to the events of the week, day or hour.
It's wrong to pretend otherwise and there, perhaps, Mr. Chrétien and his staff encouraged unrealizable expectations in the weeks running up to the summit. The fact that other themes dominated the G8's first day on Wednesday was entirely predictable. And there was never any chance, with four African leaders present in Kananaskis, that Thursday's Africa discussion would be put off, or even scaled down.
But even last week, no one who dared to predict how the summit's first day played out would have been remotely close.
The most dramatic of the unpredictable elements was the speech by George W. Bush on Monday, in which the U.S. President conditioned recognition of a Palestinian state on the removal of Yasser Arafat as leader of the Palestinian Authority. He had already postponed the speech for several days, and some summit-watchers had speculated that he would say nothing until after the summit. Evidently, he decided it was a good idea to force the other leaders to react to it under the summit spotlight, and get their initial reactions over dinner Wednesday night.
The second blind-side event was the market turmoil that broke out on Wednesday following revelations of WorldCom Inc.'s accounting irregularities. That ate up considerable television time, particularly for Mr. Bush. Between corporate America and the Middle East, there was little chance that Mr. Bush would be called upon to outline his thoughts on Africa.
The third problem was structural, rather than deriving from the events of the week. It involved a proposal, backed heavily by the United States, to give $20-billion (U.S.) in aid to Russia to keep nuclear, chemical and biological materials out of reach of terrorists. Washington offered to contribute $10-billion of the total if the other G8 countries, including Canada, would come up with the other $10-billion.
Most agreements that come out of G8 summits are predigested affairs, macerated for months in a marinade of diplomatic attention. This one, which requires commitments of Russian co-operation on various levels, was not. Canadian officials said they did not come to Kananaskis with a text encapsulating the proposal just a set of principles from which aides were supposed to work up a draft for the leaders' approval.
Since the two-day summit was already a day shorter than usual, the aides were under the gun. They worked until 4 a.m. Wednesday and past midnight on Thursday trying to get agreement. Not surprisingly, the weapons plan became another reason for believing perhaps with some justification that discussions on African topics had been sidelined. As this was being written shortly after noon on Thursday, there was still no agreement on a final text.
Global summits are often criticized for being meaningless affairs incapable of leading international relations in a new direction. In a sense, that's true: Most of what they produce is incremental or merely ratifies trends that are already well under way. But there is an element of unpredictability, so it helps to pay attention.
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