Politics & Policy

Putin on the Ritz

With the G-8 in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg, Russia — The Russians certainly put on a good show at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg.

The former capital shone with imperial glory and, if one ignored the Soviet remnants like Lenin statues or ghastly constructions like the sea terminal from which the ferries departed across the Gulf of Finland to the Constantine Palace at the village of Strelna, the setting for the G-8, one might almost believe that the Revolution had never happened.

But what did this gathering of leaders — representing in toto some 67 percent of the world’s GNP — actually achieve?

Well, they agreed corruption is bad. They exchanged views on political philosophy. They reaffirmed that Iran and North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. They stressed no one wants war in the Middle East.

We needed a summit for this?

To be sure, the announcement of new initiatives for putting the world’s most dangerous substance — enriched uranium — under firmer supervision and control was quite welcome. But it was one of the few things to come out of the meeting that is actionable. Otherwise, the overriding theme seemed to be “message.” In a variant on the Field of Dreams mantra, “If you agree on a joint statement, policy will follow.”

Some critics, of course, have a ready answer: It is Russia’s fault. If Putin were not in the chairman’s seat, if only we went back to a Group of Seven, we would have a far more robust position on Iran, on the Middle East crisis, and so forth.

I saw no evidence of this in St. Petersburg. It is very true Putin made no secret that in the talks he was going to advance and defend Russia’s national interest (a phrase he used so many times during his joint press conference with President Bush on Saturday that, if suitably sampled, could make a wonderful advertisement for the journal I edit) — and that he was not going to automatically accept the U.S. perspective on any given issue. Having said that, recreating the G-7 in 2006 would not have been more effective. Since the disappearance of the USSR, the notion of “the West” + Japan forming a tightly integrated security and economic bloc has been weakening, and that was clearly on display in St. Petersburg. Trans-Atlantic divergences mattered just as much; Putin on his own could not throw a monkey wrench into the works if he truly faced a united Seven. Excluding him would still have resulted in a laborious search for consensus in carefully worded documents expressing “concern.”

Bland consensus seemed to be the order of the day in part, because so many of the leaders gathered in St. Petersburg face domestic political difficulties or are lame ducks. Koizumi is headed out; Blair is under increasing pressure to step down. Merkel, Prodi, and Harper cannot claim extensive mandates to govern. Putin and Chirac are increasingly preoccupied with questions of political succession. And Bush has low poll numbers at home and is losing political capital on the Hill, a point he bluntly touched upon when explaining why he and Putin had been unable to come to a final agreement that would clear the way for Russian entry into the WTO.

Is the G-8 process irrelevant, then? It depends on your criteria. The original “Group of Six” convened in 1975 to deal with very concrete and specific trade and financial issues triggered by the energy shocks in 1973-74.

Over the years, it has evolved into more of a forum for discussion, unencumbered by the more formal strictures of bodies like the U.N. Security Council. It certainly provides a chance for not only the leaders and principals but even for staffs to interact in informal settings. It is important to have such channels in place, but I understand the frustrations with the G-8, particularly American ones. After all, the U.N. never worked as FDR intended it to. NATO and EU expansion have both produced much more unwieldy bodies. The G-7/G-8 always offered a beacon of hope: a small group comprised of critical countries that should be able to act decisively. But a three-day meeting, even in a setting like St. Petersburg, cannot substitute for the real problem: the lack of a shared strategic vision — as well as agreement on the best way to put it into practice — among the major powers. If this summit was expected to revitalize the G-8 process and convincingly demonstrate its relevance as a body of action — then I leave unconvinced.

 – Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest. He contributes this comment on-site from the G-8; his impressions are chronicled on his blog The Washington Realist.http://washingtonrealist.blogspot.com

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