EVIAN, France -- Members of the U.S. press corps seem convinced that no more news will be made at the G8 summit -- and, at least on the surface, they're right. Though the meeting officially ends today with a working session in the morning, most American journalists left, along with President Bush, yesterday afternoon. "I've covered seven summits and never before have I seen a press corps leave early," said Wendy Ross, White House correspondent for the Washington File, a State Department information service.
Some of Sunday's Franco-American political jockeying resurfaced yesterday. For instance, according to Alan Murray, a CNBC reporter who interviewed National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, there is some unhappiness in the U.S. camp about French President Jacques Chirac's decision to invite so many representatives from developing countries. "[Rice] thinks this meeting is getting a little too big," said Murray, whose interview will air later this week.
Meanwhile, Roman Prodi, president of the European Commission (the executive branch of the European Union), has been confronted with divisive questions about the European
Union's humanitarian commitments and economic policies. When asked whether the European Union was going to match President Bush's funding level for AIDS, Prodi was put in a position of having to defend the EU's policies -- which is exactly what Bush seems to want. "There was probably a
misunderstanding," Prodi said, adding that the European Union has committed more money over the last five years than was originally promised. When asked
how his organization will deal with a weak dollar, which is already hurting
European exports, Prodi said he could not answer that question, at least not
until the end of the summit.
Nor does anyone want to make any definitive comment on the
dollar or the global economy more broadly. Earlier yesterday, a variety of what read like hastily prepared press releases on economic issues -- such as trade, corporate responsibility, corruption and transparency -- had
circulated. And given that by the time Prodi was finished answering
questions Bush was on his way to Egypt, any surprises on international
economic policies are unlikely to emerge in the next 24 hours. The few times
the European moratorium on genetically modified foods (GMOs) -- or Bush's
decision to take the European Union to the World Trade Organization's court
over the GMO ban -- came up, those questions were brushed
aside with a sentence or two. No one mentioned actions to stabilize the dollar,
and there were only vague comments about international capital flows.
However, this does not mean that the G8 countries have been unable to agree on anything. One striking sign of cooperation is
France's decision to increase its presence in Afghanistan by sending special forces there. This will no doubt help the United States, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai's rule is still wholly dependent on foreign military assistance.
But even where it has led to common ground, the G8's emphasis on security has
been taken by many as evidence of how successfully the United States hijacked
the conference's agenda. It was telling, for instance, that Bush focused attention yesterday on the Israeli-Palestinian road map, which the United States is attempting to
see through. Chirac countered by noting that Javier Solana, secretary-general of the council of
the European Union, is giving thought to a road map for Israeli relations with Syria and Lebanon. "I think it would be a good idea
to start those type of . . . reforms," Chirac said.
And so the one-upmanship between the United States and France continued.
Amid the day's terse diplomacy, G8 leaders did seem to manage consensus on at
least one fundamental idea. "There is a general recognition that unless we
change and reform our economies quickly, we are not going to be able to survive
with the same living standards in the modern world," British Prime
Minister Tony Blair said. Chirac echoed Blair later in the day, saying the leaders
had "spontaneously" arrived at the same conclusion. World leaders,
Chirac said, need to acknowledge "everyone's responsibility to conduct these
Blair was clearest about what exactly such structural reforms will entail. "Whether it was me talking about health-care or university reform, or
practically everybody talking about pension reform, or [German Chancellor] Gerhard Schröder
telling us about his labor-market reforms, everybody understands that in the
modern world you have got to adapt and adjust your public services and
economies very quickly," Blair said. In other words, restore growth by
cutting social programs and blame it all on globalization. Blair defended this slash-and-burn approach as inescapable. "This is not, I think, any longer something that comes from left or right," he said. "It is something that is driven by the enormous impact of globalization and of the changes in technology." His comments come as France faces major strikes over pension reform, as Schröder emerges from a three-month battle with his own party over painful labor-market and social reforms, and as the United States faces spending cuts, mainly at the state and local level.
This is hardly the kind of economic consensus that characterized the G8 in the 1970s and '80s. After all, the implicit message of today's discussions was that every leader will have to find domestic solutions to
economic problems, as few agreements on international commitments are
likely forthcoming. But the formula each of these leaders seems bent on pursuing was
clear nonetheless. So those journalists who left early to find out whether Bush could appease the Arab street missed the crucial underlying message of this summit for the Western world: No matter your positions on the United States versus France, on Israelis versus Palestinians or on GMOs versus organic produce, get ready for a round of economic belt-tightening.
Alex Gourevitch is a Prospect writing fellow. This is his second dispatch from the G8 summit in Evian, France. Read his first here.