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Western Press Review: Birmingham Summit Lacked Clout

By Joel Blocker/Dora Slaba

Prague, 18 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentators are assessing the past weekend's summit meeting in Birmingham, England, of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations plus Russia. Many find that it fell short of its own advertised goals, particularly in providing needed debt relief for the poorer developing countries, while others suggest the group no longer has the clout it once possessed.

DAILY TELEGRAPH: An opportunity for writing off debts was sadly missed

Two British newspapers, the conservative Daily Telegraph and the Independent, criticize the summit for its failure to take strong action on reducing debts from poor nations. In an editorial, the Daily Telegraph says that "for many years, aid donors have been writing off debts owned by the world's poorest countries....(and the G-7 had) a chance of making a dramatic and generous move towards lifting the burden of debt." But, the editorial continues, "at Birmingham that opportunity was, sadly, missed. Other members were reluctant to follow Britain's lead, begun by the Conservatives and continuing under Labor, of writing off debt and untying aid. The summit commitment to (the final communiqu's words) 'speedy and determined implementation' of the 1996 IMF /World Bank initiative on Heavily Indebted Poor Countries turned out to mean no more than an intention to put all those falling into that category on the track of debt relief by the millennium.": The paper concludes: "The Birmingham summit served to draw attention to the plight of the poorest. It also revealed that governments lag behind public the wish to meet the United Nations target of halving by 2015 the proportion of the world's population living in extreme poverty."

INDEPENDENT: The summit was faced with a different moral hazard - inaction

In its editorial, the Independent is of a similar mind, noting the summit's final communiqu "requires that poor countries follow an IMF-approved 'structural adjustment program' for six years in order to qualify; if they drop out half-way through they have to start again at the beginning." The paper goes on to say: "The response from two, Germany and Japan, was particularly disappointing. The Germans in effect accused Tony Blair of hypocrisy, for lecturing them about debt relief when Britain has one of the worst records for writing off debts (partly because we have fewer to write off). The Japanese muttered about 'honor' and the danger of 'moral hazard' if obligations were not fulfilled. As a result," the paper concludes, "the summit was faced with a different moral hazard, that of inaction in the face of needless suffering."

WASHINGTON POST: The rest of the world has changed a lot ...

Some U.S. analysts find that the G-7 plus Russia is not what it used to be. In a news analysis from Birmingham for the Washington Post, T.R. Reid and Clay Chandler write: "At one time, the eight world leaders who gathered this weekend...might have been called the most powerful men on earth. They sure don't look like it now." They go on: "With a new nuclear arms race exploding in South Asia, fiery uproar in the streets of the world's fourth largest country (Indonesia), and the planet's poorest residents sinking deeper into poverty, the leaders...of the industrial democracies looked deeply at all these problems and pronounced themselves 'frustrated.'" The analysis continues: "In 23 years of summits, the group of rich industrial nations has changed little, while the rest of the world has changed a lot....Most of the 'final communiqu' was written by mid-level bureaucrats before the heads of state even arrived here..."

The analysts conclude: "(The eight)" countries generally applaud the annual get-together, if for no other reason that it enables leaders from the member nations to develop a personal rapport.....But there are now a profusion of these high-level gatherings --in addition to the annual (G-7 plus Russia) meeting, the U.S. president is obliged to attend regular summits with leaders from the Asian-Pacific Nations and leaders from South America. By now, even champions of the process admit to summit fatigue. 'The only thing I'm against,' White House National Security Samuel Berger declared, 'is adding any more summits to the agenda.'"

NEW YORK TIMES: The main problem with the forum today is that it deals with issues which reach far beyond its members....

The New York Times believes that the lack of strong action by the eight countries is the result of the participants' relatively narrow focus as well as of the way their summits are usually conducted. In an editorial over the weekend (May 16), the paper wrote: "Only one Asian country, Japan, (was) represented. Fighting international crime and increasing the jobs that globalization creates were also on the agenda. But the countries most affected by these issues were absent. It is useful to have an annual summit where leaders can talk about solving global problems. But that gathering can no longer exclude the developing world." The editorial also said: " The forum has gradually become more choreographed and the retinue of aides grows each year. It has also broadened its focus to political problems....The meetings end with announcements about the consensus reached --often cosmetic-- and all the leaders get their picture taken, last (year in the U.S.) in cowboy gear. In short, not much is done." The paper sums up: "The main problem with the forum today is that the issues it deals with reach far beyond its members....(It) would be more useful if it could replace a few hundred aides with a few more leaders, and let them talk without a script."

IL SOL-24 ORE: The great weakness of the original G-7 has always been its lack of tools for enforcement

There is similar criticism in the West European press. In a commentary yesterday in Italy's Il Sole-24 Ore, the country's leading financial and economic daily published in MiIan, Mario Platero wrote: "For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the new order perfected by the United States is being attacked simultaneously on (many) fronts (--India and Pakistan, Kosovo, Middle East, Indonesia). And the (G-7 plus Russia), which is supposed to act as a regional flywheel to maintain the balances, is split: It (has responded) with an avalanche of words, with few promises, and above all with no concrete acts. The only mutually satisfying factor for the Big Eight was the fact that they were able to announce that Russia is to join the rotating process for hosting the summits." Platero concluded: "The great weakness of the original G-7 has always been its lack of tools for 'enforcement,' in other words of a suitable mechanism for coercion. This is a weakness that the Seven, and now the Eight, have gotten used to living with. But back then the discussion was all about interest rates and tax maneuvers. Now it's about nuclear bombs."

LA REPUBBLICA: They gave the impression of a lack of power in the face of a number of international events

In Rome, La Repubblica today speaks of "Eight Lame Giants." The paper writes in its editorial: "The Summit of the Great Eight adhered to an agenda which had been settled months ahead by Tony Blair who, together with Clinton, Prodi and the Canadian Jean Chretien, wanted to see the final English soccer match on TV. The top politicians tried to show no tension, only calm and trust. But they gave the impression of a lack of power in the face of a number of international events which they seem unable to bring under control --the Middle East, Indonesia and, above all, the growing nuclear threat in Asia."

BERLINER TAGESSPIEGEL: Birmingham inspires no fear

Germany's Berliner Tagesspiegel added its voice to the critical choir yesterday, writing in an editorial: "The people of Indonesia can draw no hope from Birmingham. First the industrial nations flooded their country with thousands of millions of dollars, then suddenly the cash was withdrawn. Corruption became rampant and reforms fell along the way. The devastating consequences for taxpayers in this land...was a surprise as much for the government as for the attentive newspaper reader." The paper went on: "The news from (Birmingham) should have announced a renewed battle (against crime, drugs, nuclear proliferation), but instead it will cause tears to well with emotion. Four of the group's European Union members, who do not even have a EU-wide FBI to help them, belong to those avoiding a new fight. No, Birmingham inspires no fear in Suharto, nor in any atom adventurer, drug boss or money launderer."

EL PAIS: The group's composition is becoming obsolete

In the same vein, Spain's El Pais dismisses the summit as "just another usual round for the mighty ones." The paper writes in its editorial today: "Originally, these summit meetings were attended by finance ministers with the aim of coordinating economic policies world-wide. With the disintegration of (the Soviet Union), it has turned into a structure with aims so diffuse they can hardly be realized on the international scene. The relationship between the amplitude of problems in the world and the answers which the summit had to offer is very disappointing....This round shows that the group's composition is becoming obsolete. The participants were not in a position to react to the changes in the international economic situation."

DERNIERES NOUVELLES: Russia remains a high-risk country for the rest of the world

In France, the regional newspaper Dernieres nouvelles d'Alsace focuses on Russia's status in Birmingham. In an editorial, the paper says that for the past several years, "the Western nations have supported Russia and tried to control its economic transformation. But Russia remains a high-risk country for the rest of the world." The paper continues: "(At the summit) Russian economic adviser Alexandre Livshitz said that '(the other seven) don't talk any more about us at the summit, which demonstrates progress, and that we have become a normal country.' Nevertheless, the summit's final communiqu barely conceals a message aimed at Russia, saying that the Asian crisis teaches 'the importance of a healthy economic policy, transparency and efficient management of public affairs.'"