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World: Analysis From Washington -- A New Actor On The World Stage

Washington, 3 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Foreign ministers of eight Islamic countries will meet in Istanbul on Saturday to set up an organization intended to challenge the current distribution of wealth between rich and poor regions of the world.

But preliminary indications are that this organization is likely to be important less for what its members do than for the reaction it seems certain to provoke among other countries.

The eight states involved -- Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Turkey -- plan to call their group of states the D-8, a name that identifies them as "Developing" countries and one consciously modeled on the G-7, the organization of the world's leading industrial states.

According to Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, the D-8 will immediately call for negotiations with the G-7 in order to end what he calls the current "double standard" in international economic relations.

Erbakan says that the current system of international trade keeps prices for raw materials, many of which come from poor countries, artificially low while allowing the prices of high technology items, almost all of which are produced in developed countries, to rise.

This arrangement, Erbakan says, inevitably "makes the poor even poorer and the rich even richer." And he warns that unless something is done, the poorer regions of the world will be "in 40 years time on the point of invading or destroying Europe."

Regardless of whether the proposed D-8 can live up to its own advance billing, there are three reasons to think that the discussions in Istanbul will send a shockwave throughout the industrialized West.

First, Ankara's role in organizing this meeting highlights the extent to which Turkey no longer sees itself as an integral part of the West but rather as part and parcel of the Islamic and developing worlds.

That shift in Turkey's position has already drawn criticism from the United States and other Western countries. But its continuation seems certain to have ever more dramatic consequences in the future for the balance of power in the Middle East, the prospects for NATO enlargement, and even for stability in the Balkans.

Second, the purposes of this new organization put it on a collision course with the current Western-led drive for a system of free and unrestricted international trade, one in which market forces rather than political decisions determine outcomes.

At a minimum, it establishes a nucleus of the countries who will seek to undermine the free trade principles of the World Trade Organization.

But even more, by suggesting that national economic and political requirements must take precedence over the world market, this group will help to provide a justification for protectionism and managed trade both for its own members and for those affected by their actions.

For the members of this group and those who follow them, the interjection of political decisions into the market could lead to the establishment of more international cartels among countries exporting raw materials and the more flagrant use of such power by existing cartels.

Among the cartels that might take advantage of such a new atmosphere, of course, is OPEC, the still powerful group of oil exporting countries. Indeed, that may be a particular threat because like the D-8, so many of its member states are Islamic as well.

And third, the establishment of this group will further ideologize, and even more Islamicize, the longstanding North-South divisions between the developed and developing worlds. And that in turn will make the resolution of the tensions between the rich and poor nations even more difficult.

On the one hand, Erbakan's suggestion that the current system represents a "deliberate" pattern of "exploitation" will only encourage anti-Western radicalism among the have-not countries, a radicalism likely to be exploited by other powers interested in weakening the influence of the West.

And on the other, many in the West are likely to see the creation of the D-8 as evidence that Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington is right when he talks in his current book about the "clash of civilizations."

Such a reading of the D-8 is almost certainly incorrect. After all, Erbakan himself explicitly said that he favors the creation of this organization precisely in order to prevent a future non-Western attack on Europe.

But because so many in the West are likely to dismiss Erbakan's caveat, the creation of the D-8 seems certain to send shockwaves throughout the international system. Indeed, it could easily become one of the most important developments of the new year.