The spectacle of the G-8 leaders in the bucolic verdure of Camp David, as they were strutting in their leisure attire capped by prudent sweaters against any non-fiscal Catoctin chill for photo-ops for those at home, could momentarily disguise what an appalling mess all the G-8 countries except Germany and Canada have made of the art of government. Not all the leaders who attended are equally blameworthy, of course. The French and Japanese leaders are new. Some — Mario Monti (of Italy) and David Cameron (of the U.K.) — have lightly ameliorated the desperate conditions they inherited; and some — Angela Merkel (of Germany), and Stephen Harper (of Canada) — inherited advantageous conditions and have steadfastly reinforced them, have been reelected and probably will be again. As a group, they are an interesting kaleidoscope of leaders of great nations toiling for their own political well-being and for the welfare of their 900 million people, in eight of the twelve largest national economies (Brazil, China, India, and Spain are missing, and would bring the population represented to over 3.5 billion — a majority of the world). They are like a cutaway drawing of Santa’s workshop, with each elf banging away in some purposeful task, yet conveying a slightly comical, portentous busyness.
At least this confected casualness is preferable to the former, ostentatious fun of the summiteer: speeding limousines hurtling to a stop as if conveying bank robbers transferring to escape helicopters, as well-upholstered and accoutered men debouch from their cars and bustlingly wrestle bulging briefcases up the conference-building steps for the evident benefit of all mankind. For all history up to the end of the Cold War, summit meetings were historic and dramatic occasions, when leaders who controlled the destiny of much of the world met to change the world. Thus it was with Pope (Saint) Leo and Attila the Hun in 452; Henry VIII and François I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520; Napoleon and Alexander on the raft at Tilsit in 1807; Metternich and the heads of the Great Powers at Vienna in 1814–15; Bismarck and the Powers at Berlin in 1878; Clemenceau, Wilson, and Lloyd George at Versailles in 1918–19; Hitler, Chamberlain, and the others at Munich in 1938; Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945; and the post-war summit meetings from Potsdam through to the dramatic Reagan-Gorbachev meetings in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow. Hugely important decisions, many of them disastrous and some dishonorable, were made at those earlier meetings. The previous meetings at Camp David, between Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943, and between Eisenhower and Khrushchev in 1959, were necessary and at least discussed serious subjects.
Now, the summit meetings are a proliferating taxation on the time of the participants and the attention span of the world. Almost nothing of the slightest note results from them, and they seem to take place almost constantly: the G-7, G-8, and G-20. (This last contains all those mentioned above as missing from the G-8, plus a sprinkling of geographic and ethnic affirmative action, no matter how practically undeserved, from the legitimately important Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, through Mexico and South Africa, even unto the shambles of Pakistan and the Evitaistic farce of Argentina.) Even Brazil, Russia, India, and China — because a few journalists grouped them together as large developing countries and called them BRIC — meet, though Russia is a basket case, India is dysfunctional, and China is so secretive no one really has any serious idea what is happening there, and they have nothing in common with each other except life on earth. The supreme send-up of this whole self-serving roundel of summitry is the G-77, 40 percent of the nations of the world grouped together to demand Danegeld from the developed world as compensation for having backward economies beset by the carbon emissions of the advanced countries, led in the militancy of the extension of their cupped hands by China, the world’s foremost carbon emitter.
All the participants at Camp David except Germany and Canada — which have very manageable debt levels and whose economies are performing respectably — demand the borrowing and dispersal of vast sums of money, supposedly to generate economic growth. In this group, there are gradations of accumulated incompetence, as Mario Monti and David Cameron, called in to clean up after severely incontinent predecessors, are attempting to do some things that are useful, though Cameron waffled on a cleanup of the sacred cow of British national health care and his tax changes have been ambiguous. Even more questionable is Cameron’s exhortation to the Eurozone, from which he has wisely kept his distance, to be a “firewall” of financial stability, i.e., for the protection of the United Kingdom whose post-Thatcher fiscal behavior has been on all fours with the mindless profligacy of most of Europe. Britain threw the doughty old Commonwealth over the side 40 years ago to leap headlong into Europe, and is now surpassed economically by Canada and Australia. It thought better of Europe and embraced the Special Relationship with America, until Obama flicked it off and gratuitously sent back from the Oval Office the bust of Winston Churchill (an honorary and half-American). Britain is a self-made orphan; it should try to revive the most promising parts of the Commonwealth, including India and Singapore, but probably only the brilliant new Australian foreign minister, Bob Carr, has the imagination to think in these terms. Britain and Italy have fragile coalition governments, and neither may last long.