The world’s attention is focused on Okinawa, as heads of the eight leading industrialized nations kick off their 26th annual summit. Japan, the chair of this year’s meeting, has invested heavily in the get-together. The 81 billion yen that the government has spent on the summit indicates the significance Tokyo attaches to the meeting. The challenge is seeing that the money is well spent. But the success of the summit does not depend on what transpires between Friday and Sunday. It depends on what happens after the heads of state go home.
In other words, the G8 meeting has to produce results. Some have expressed concern at the anodyne themes of this year’s get-together: “global peace,” “further prosperity” and “peaceful state of mind.” Others point to the lengthy agenda and worry that by including almost everything, it ensures progress in almost nothing. Focus and follow-through are essential if this year’s summit is to meet the world’s weighty expectations.
As always, economics is the first priority. The heads of state will focus on two sets of issues. The first are items within their sphere of influence, such as Japan’s need to promote a sustainable recovery. The second involves issues that the Group of Eight has a stake in, but that involve other nations as well. For example, the participants reportedly will call for the early launch of a new round of world trade talks, but intense coordination with other governments will be required.
Japan has done well to anticipate that need. This year’s summit has been expanded to include meetings with leaders of the billions of people not represented by the G8 nations. On Thursday, Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori presided over informal discussions between G8 members and four leaders from Algeria, Nigeria, South Africa and Thailand.
Those talks will be reflected in the main topic of this year’s summit, “The Digital Divide.” There is growing concern over the widening gap between the wired and unwired worlds, and the impact this will have on world economic prospects. U.S. President Bill Clinton will press his fellow heads of state to embrace a new way of thinking that will enable the information revolution to take root. For most of the world’s population, however, the problem is money, not mentality. Closing the digital divide requires, first and foremost, economic assistance. That is why Japan last week announced it would provide $15 billion over the next five years to help poor nations develop information-technology systems in their countries. More pledges are expected from other G8 leaders.
Another way to help would be to press ahead with debt forgiveness. Last year, the G8 announced a $100 billion package of debt relief by the end of 2000 for the 40 poorest nations on Earth. Hardly any of that relief has been delivered, a sad reminder that the summit should be judged not by what takes place during its 72 hours, but during the 365 days that follow.
When the discussions move beyond economic issues, the leaders will be talking about health and environmental concerns. The devastating impact of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria has obliged the heads of state to discuss infectious diseases — which claim more lives annually than does war — for the first time ever.
Last week, French President Jacques Chirac promised to push his G8 partners to help improve medical care in developing countries. Earlier this week, the U.S. Export-Import Bank said it will provide $1 billion annually in loans to help sub-Saharan Africa nations buy AIDS drugs, medical equipment and health services from U.S. companies. Other participants are likely to make similar pledges.
There will be time to call on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to stabilize oil prices, and to urge talks between Russia and its creditors on debt relief. Participants will discuss money laundering, drug trafficking, greenhouse gases and genetically modified food. They will also address Korean peace talks, disarmament negotiations and conflict prevention.
Strangely, the most contentious and potentially important issue, national missile defense, is reportedly not on the summit agenda. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeated his opposition to the plan, and some of his concerns are shared by several European allies of the United States. On a stopover in Pyongyang on the way to Japan, Mr. Putin is said to have obtained North Korea’s agreement to give up its missile-development program if it obtains international assistance.
That aid would have to come from G8 nations, which suggests, at the very least, that this topic deserves a prominent place on the summit agenda. Few initiatives would better deliver peace, prosperity and a peaceful state of mind than one that capped Pyongyang’s missile program.
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