When U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev met on the sidelines of the G8 summit in Japan, they agreed only that they share some areas of agreement and some areas of disagreement.
What more could anyone have expected?
Summits of the Group of Eight leading industrialized economies are sometimes closely watched, as the world looks on with the hope -- even expectation -- that this intimate group of the world’s most powerful politicians might have some impact on the crises of the day. But not this time. A pall has settled over the G8 in Japan. Even though global energy markets are out of control, food prices are rising from one day to the next, evidence of a looming climate catastrophe is mounting, and more, there is no sense that the current G8 assembly will have more than a superficial influence on any of this.
The G8 is suffering from a malaise that could hardly come at a worse time for the world. And that malaise is driven by the personalities around the table.
Take Bush, for instance. With just six months left in office and a battered reputation, he is clearly a lame duck -- a status only highlighted by his protestations that he is “sprinting to the finish.” The last time he toured Europe, he received minimal media attention. Even protesters barely bothered to show up. One German daily commented that Bush simply wasn’t worth the trouble. Presiding over a shaky economy and two wars, Bush is increasingly considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. The world is clearly looking beyond him. He is in no position to exercise global leadership or articulate a global strategic vision.
And then there’s Medvedev, Russia’s young president who came into office just two months ago amid often naïve hopes that he represented a new, liberal trend in Moscow. Many cherished expectations that Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor would somehow embrace principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. But Medvedev is clearly Putin’s creation. He claims that fighting corruption and “legal nihilism” are crucial to Russia’s very existence, yet he is willfully blind to many dubious and politically motivated criminal cases in his country. Jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose real crime was harboring political ambitions that crossed with Putin’s, now faces a second set of charges in a case that is selective and full of legal violations. Rather than bringing hope to the G8, Medvedev brings his own set of problems, with Moscow as much the odd man out at the summit as ever. Medvedev cannot make any decisions without Putin, and Putin isn’t even in Japan.
The positions of the Western European leaders are also ambiguous. French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to office with the popularity of a movie star. But in recent months he has spent more time tending to his charming wife than his charming country, and his popularity has plummeted. The high expectations that he has failed to live up to hang over him and make the world’s disillusionment even keener. His sensible and laudable proposal to include emerging economic giants India and China in the G8 process sounds like mere hollow verbiage coming from him these days. People nod, smile, and expect nothing.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel presides over a relatively healthy economy, but her power on the global stage is crippled by domestic political considerations. She remains under the influence of her coalition partners in the German government, where former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder still plays a strong role. Schroeder is on the payroll of Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant that many in Europe see as more of a strategic threat than a strategic partner. No important initiative on energy can be taken without the agreement of Schroeder’s colleagues; that is, without the agreement of people tied to Russian interests. It is almost as if Gazprom has 1 1/2 seats at the G8 table.
Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is so mired in political and business scandals, many fraught with the danger of criminal prosecution, that he can do little more than tend to his own power base. Great Britain’s Gordon Brown is a textbook example of a politician who was a promising, even brilliant No. 2, but who failed to emerge as a dynamic, independent No. 1. He has never stepped out as a player on the world stage like his predecessor, Tony Blair, did and continues to do.
Canada and Japan have never taken leading, agenda-setting roles in the G8 and their current leaders show no potential for changing that tradition.
Following the pattern of many recent G8 events in the wake of earlier summits that were dogged by massive, sometimes violent protests, this week’s gathering was exiled to the island of Hokkaido. The hosts spent nearly $300 million on security, mobilizing 21,000 police on the island and a similar contingent in Tokyo. The massive security effort was a relative success, with just a few thousand motley protesters trailing after the proceedings. But this just contributes to the cloud of disappointment hanging in the air. The dog days of summer have come early this year.Nenad Pejic is RFE/RL associate director of broadcasting. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.