It is easy to be cynical about G8 summits. The annual meetings of the heads of state of the leading industrialized nations are equal parts political theater, photo opportunity and security nightmare. Each summit produces a lofty statement that echoes its predecessors, is invariably bland despite (or perhaps because of) having been worked out in agonizing detail in advance, and contains exhortations rather than commitments. Their consistency suggests that the leaders of the most powerful nations on the planet have not acted to confront the problems they identify each year as serious. Observers complain of a “compliance deficit.”

This year’s meeting, the 31st since 1975, was different. The host, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, made clear that he would focus on a few issues rather than address the laundry list of previous discussions. His concerns were debt relief for the world’s poorest nations and climate change.

The result was unprecedented. The assembled leaders agreed to double aid to Africa from $25 billion to $50 billion by 2010. This comes on the heels of the finance ministers’ agreement last month, ratified at the summit, to write off $40 billion in debt of the 18 most heavily indebted countries, 14 of which are in sub-Sahara Africa. In addition, the leaders agreed to provide $9 billion in aid over three years to the Palestinian Authority. With those funds, the PA can establish a genuinely democratic government and provide the security that is the foundation of any real peace in the Middle East.

On climate change, the results were less impressive. Mr. Blair was stymied by U.S. President George W. Bush’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol. Prior to the meeting, Mr. Bush acknowledged that humans have had a powerful impact on climate change, but he would not yield on caps on greenhouse emissions, forcing the G8 statement to merely announce the leaders agreed that climate change was a problem, human activity contributed to it and that it must be tackled with urgency.

Invariably, there were complaints that the meeting did not produce enough or that the statement reflects business as usual. The first complaint is unfair. The doubling of aid to Africa is an extraordinary achievement, and the acknowledgment of the role played by human behavior on global warming is a necessary prerequisite for action. It is too early to make judgments on the second criticism but there are good reasons to think this year might be different.

First, the heads of state for the first time personally signed the communique. This was done at Mr. Blair’s insistence because, as he explained, “I wanted to symbolize the strength of our commitment.” Second, the meeting was preceded by the Live 8 concerts that focused unprecedented attention on the G8 summit. The scrutiny gave Mr. Blair more credibility as he pushed for action. If that focus is maintained, then backsliding will be harder. In other words, G8 compliance is as much a function of public vigilance as it is of action by heads of state.

The terrorist attacks on London on the opening day of the meeting also changed the context of the summit. In one sense, the bombings threaten Mr. Blair’s agenda: terrorism once again looks set to overwhelm all other concerns. The atrocities vindicate Mr. Bush’s tough stance and his demands for a continuing priority on counterterrorism efforts. The final communique pledged support for London and more efforts to fight terror.

But the attacks also reminded the world of the need to follow through with these pledges. The aid to Africa and the Palestinians was justified, among other things, as counterterrorism programs: By providing alternatives to poverty and despair, such efforts can drain the swamp of potential terrorist supporters.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the attacks, Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush (among others) contrasted their efforts to help the world’s poor and disadvantaged with the terrorists’ determination to kill people. A failure to follow through on those pledges would expose that as mere rhetoric and, quite frankly, an attempt to exploit those terrible acts for their own political purposes.

Now, the world must keep pressure on the G8 leaders to keep their promises. That means ensuring that aid programs are funded and assistance provided. Having acknowledged the importance of human behavior on the climate, there must be credible and effective plans to change that behavior. Kyoto may be flawed, but alternatives must be devised. Mere opposition is not an agenda. All nations, but the United States in particular, must become more engaged in the Middle East peace talks. Some resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will do the most to reduce Islamic terrorism. The public must keep leaders focused on these problems and their pledges. Only then will the compliance deficit be closed and the G8’s existence justified.

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