A quarter of a century has passed since the world’s seven industrialized democracies held their first summit meeting in 1975 under the initiative of French President Giscard d’Estaing. In its earlier years the G7 forum moved the world somewhat, providing a sense of unity and direction that was not available from the weakened United Nations and divided international organizations. This year’s meeting — which includes Russia — will be held in Kyushu and Okinawa beginning July 21.

During global energy crises of the 1970s, G7 nations (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States) hammered out an agreement setting country-by-country quotas for oil imports and thus rolled back the offensive by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The G7 also showed determination in dealing with currency turmoil and with trade friction stemming from Japanese and German surpluses.

In the 1980s, G7 leaders supported the reform campaign initiated by the general secretary of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, and helped bring the Cold War to an end. In the 1990s, however, the pace-setting role of summitry diminished, as the forum was seen increasingly to be unwilling or unable to deal with new crises of the post-Cold War world, such as ethnic and religious conflicts. As pundits put it, the summit had become “ritualized” — long on rhetoric but short on substance.

It appears the U.S. is losing interest in a summit that does not produce substantive results. Bill Clinton, the lame duck president, is anxious to leave his name in history as a peacemaker for the Middle East. His summit goals are likely to be modest, reflecting in part the pressures of election-year politics in the U.S. It is also likely that he will avoid any detailed discussion of the U.S. military presence in Japan, particularly in Okinawa. As for the Japanese economy, he will probably give the same matter-of-fact message: The U.S. wants Japan to continue its recovery efforts.

If the U.S. is losing interest in the “ceremonial” summit, Japan is almost engrossed by it. The G8 summit is regarded by Japanese politicians and bureaucrats, as well as the media here, as the only place where the prime minister of Japan can mix with leaders of major powers. So the government has spent a lot of time, energy and money to prepare for the Kyushu-Okinawa Summit 2000.

In a move to put an Asian spin on the meeting, former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi visited Southeast Asia twice earlier this year before he succumbed to a stroke. His successor, Yoshiro Mori, made a whirlwind trip around the world for get-acquainted talks with summit leaders during the holiday season in May.

The “ritual” nature of summit meetings has much to do with the way in which preparations are made. As is well known, bureaucrats known as sherpas pave the way to make sure everything goes smoothly. That means that work is effectively finished long before the actual meeting is held. Should any serious disagreement surface at the meeting, it is most likely kept secret. That is part of the reason why summit communiques are dull.

Is it possible to revive the G8 summit as a “can-do” forum? I feel that will be very difficult. But then I see no reason why leaders of the world’s richest nations cannot join hands to combat the economic and social ills that plague humanity.

During this century the world has experienced phenomenal economic growth and development. At the same time, mass production and mass consumption have destroyed the environment and widened the gap between rich and poor. The U.S.-led information technology revolution is also a double-edged sword: It promotes globalization but threatens ethnic and regional traditions and cultures, or the diversity of values.

Mutual respect for these things is likely to be an underlying trend in the 21st century, a trend that will rein in the relentless forces of globalism. If so, G8 summiteers should respect diversity when dealing with global issues such as finance, poverty, energy, ecology, population, food, cancer, AIDS and crime. In other words, they should take into account conflicting values and ideas if they are to provide meaningful and constructive answers to these issues.

Chinese participation in the summit has been postponed on the ground that it is premature. I believe, however, that it will materialize in the near future. The present summit group, which is tilted heavily toward American and European powers, seems ill-equipped to deal with issues of the 21st century. It should be opened to emerging powers that show political and economic leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly pressing Japan and other summit nations to put the U.S. national missile defense plan on the summit agenda. His proposal, if it goes through, will surely enhance interest in the coming meeting. With tension in the Korean Peninsula easing in the wake of the historic North-South summit, Russia and China have agreed to stop NMD, which they fear will destroy the delicate balance of nuclear deterrence and open the way for a new arms race.

Now that the third U.S. test launch of a missile interceptor has flopped, Japan, a partner in the TMD research program, finds itself in an awkward position. As the summit host, however, the nation should deal squarely with this issue and not put it on the back burner. Other summiteers should be encouraged to express their candid views on the missile shield.

Japan’s post-World War II foreign policy has centered on bilateral relations with the U.S. As for the military bases in Okinawa, Japan would like to get U.S. concessions. That may be wishful thinking, given the limited U.S. interest in Okinawa. The U.S. seems interested chiefly in forging pragmatic ties with the Russian leader.

Japan needs to make full use of its role as the host nation. Instead of concentrating on Japan-U.S. relations, Prime Minister Mori should speak out on global issues, such as those I described above, even if Clinton disagrees. Otherwise Japan will have missed a golden opportunity to make its presence felt at the Kyushu-Okinawa summit.

As for its own problems, Japan should express a clear and strong determination to shake up its sick society as well as its distorted economy. The ultimate goal, of course, is to create a nation of higher quality and greater substance.

Without an explicit statement of its resolve, Japan will not be able to regain international confidence. It should start changing its makeshift and reactive ways and present bold plans for the 21st century. That is the real challenge for Japan at the last G8 summit meeting of this century.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.