A G8 vote of support for Japan

The Group of Eight summit, the annual meeting of the world’s leading industrialized economies, has lost some of its shine in recent years, eclipsed as well by the rise of the G20 as a forum for global economic decision making. Nonetheless, the G8 still serves important purposes, two of which were on display last week at the meeting hosted by French President Nikolas Sarkozy in the French town of Deauville.

First, it offered a vote of confidence in and support for Japan in the aftermath of the tragic events of March 11. Second, it showed that it remains relevant when tackling the most critical and sensitive political issues: The assembled leaders promised support for the Arab Spring, but conditioned that aid on progress toward genuine democracy.

In their final declaration, the leaders said they “are fully confident in the ability of the Japanese authorities to respond to the challenge and build a speedy and lasting recovery, and we stand ready to assist as needed.” That vote of confidence came after Prime Minister Naoto Kan, in his first overseas visit since the disaster, assured his fellow summiteers that Japan would learn the lessons of the March 11 nuclear disaster and fully recover.

In remarks to the group, Mr. Kan explained developments in Japan — the nuclear situation is “gradually stabilizing” — declaring that it was “our historic responsibility to transmit the lessons to people around the world and to future generations.” He announced plans to host a global meeting on nuclear safety in 2012, in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). That meeting would be part of a broader effort to set international standards to ensure the safety of nuclear power plants. Mr. Kan put forth a five-point plan centered on the IAEA to do just that.

In addition, Mr. Kan promised to boost the share of green energy in Japan’s total power supply to 20 percent by 2020. That is a sharp contrast with previous plans: As of last year, nuclear power was forecast to produce 50 percent of Japanese energy needs by 2030 and renewable energy would account for just 1 percent. In practical terms, Mr. Kan’s plan means bringing down the cost of solar power generation to one-third of its present level by 2020 and one-sixth by 2030; the government aims to install solar panels in 10 million households. In their declaration, the G8 leaders said that they “recognize the importance of learning from the Fukushima accident and its aftermath.”

Mr. Kan’s plan offers them the chance to turn those lessons into concrete actions. There is another benefit that could flow from this proposal: a chance for enhanced cooperation between Japan and South Korea. Next year, Seoul will host the second Nuclear Security Summit. Our two countries should work closely together to ensure that the meeting and the one that Mr. Kan has proposed are complementary. Coordination between the two governments can help demonstrate the common interests the two countries share and their ability to work together to make real progress on global concerns.

While the G8 declaration also rolled out the usual policy points — condemning North Korea and Iran for their nuclear ambitions and refusal to heed international demands for transparency and compliance with previous commitments; faith in the recovery of the global economy and the need for G8 economies to get their fiscal houses in order; recommitting to action on climate change and biodiversity; pledging to get the Doha trade round restarted, along with other points — the focus of much of their discussion was the political transitions underway in the Middle East, a phenomenon often referred to as “the Arab Spring.”

The G8 leaders condemned the governments in Iran, Libya and Syria for their harsh repression of democratic voices. In one surprising development, Russia offered to mediate the departure of Libyan strongman Moamar Ghadaffi. Moscow’s shift is important as many autocrats count on Russian support to fend off demands from the West. China has partnered with Russia to shield those leaders from democratic demands; when Moscow “defects” to Western positions, Beijing is uncomfortably exposed and frequently shifts its position as well. This bodes well for democrats throughout the world.

In their declaration, the G8 promised $20 billion in aid and debt relief to Egypt and Tunisia through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — if those countries continue down the path of democratic reform. Bilateral aid to the two countries was also promised. To signal that the G8′s focus is not just on those evolving countries and that democratic aspirations should be nurtured worldwide, leaders from three sub-Saharan countries that recently held elections — Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger — were invited to the meeting. The G8 leaders said they will continue to help those nations that continue down the democratic path, fight corruption and strengthen the rule of law.

We have heard these declarations before. The test, as always, is following those fine sentiments with actions. Historically, the G8 has fallen short of its pledges: The leaders’ statement acknowledged that they did not deliver on their 2005 promise to increase aid by $19 billion. Continuing failure to do so will further marginalize the G8; Japan’s recent tragedy should make plain that action can ensure that this forum stays relevant well into the future.