The G8's exercise in nostalgia

Article Highlights

  • To many, the very notion of a G8 summit seems anachronistic when set against current realities and the clear necessity for this administration to address pressing issues in Asia.

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  • For the United States — and for Prime Minister Cameron — the most important announcement at the summit was the formal kickoff of negotiations on a U.S.-EU free trade agreement.

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  • My skepticism stems from the wide and potentially intractable divisions over the major issues entailed in so-called deep integration.

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  • Of greater import for future U.S. economic and security leadership in Asia is a successful conclusion to the TPP agreement.

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The G8 initiated formal negotiations on a U.S.-EU Free Trade Agreement, but there are reasons to be skeptical about its future. Of greater importance to the United States is the successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Nostalgia does not provide a solid foundation for 21st century foreign or economic policy. Yet we heard a great deal of it last week at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland and in President Obama’s speech in Berlin. The president’s attempt to invoke and relive a more perilous and heroic time with a Kennedy-esque speech in Berlin looked backward and fell flat. Surprisingly for a president who prides himself on his eloquence, Obama failed to inspire. As one sympathetic observer from the German Bertelsmann Foundation noted: “Realism has set in and the German public has tamped down their expectations of the U.S. president.... He could have delivered his generic remarks almost anywhere.”   

To many, the very notion of a G8 summit seems anachronistic when set against current realities and the clear necessity for this administration to address pressing issues in Asia. The pictures from the summit are telling: among the so-called “powers” represented were not one, but two heads of the European Union (if the names escape you, they are: José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president). And then there was the latest prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta. French President François Hollande showed up as well, but the organizers were careful not to place him next to Barroso, who has labeled France’s trade stance “reactionary.” (Not to be outdone, the French called Barroso’s remarks “intolerable”). The most notable unity among the European nations was demonstrated by British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — who stalwartly and successfully defended their “austerity” policies against fellow European leaders — and the president of the United States.

When the more representative G20 was established, many observers believed the G8 would fade away. But like an ancient hulk from a grade-B movie, it keeps reemerging out of the murky policy waters. This year’s G8 Leaders Communique runs nearly 40 pages, but it largely papers over failures to agree (Syria, austerity vs. stimulus, climate change). The document also contains a familiar series of platitudes regarding challenges in areas such as food security, African development, counterterrorism, open government data, and corrupt land transactions. 

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