Saturday, July 09, 2005

Turning Historic Opportunity Into Diplomatic Mush

In case you missed it, the New York Times lead editorial today, summarizing the dismal reluctance of George Bush that singlehandedly caused the recent G8 meeting to fall short of its goals.

George Bush characteristically kicked dirt in the eye his only remaining international friend, Tony Blair. As we knew he would.
Tony Blair's Summit Meeting

Prime Minister Tony Blair called the outcome of the summit meeting in Scotland an "alternative to the hatred" manifested by the terrorist bombings in London - an apt description. The leaders of eight of the world's richest countries agreed on a package of measures to help the world's poorest, including, prominently, a doubling of their aid to Africa, to $50 billion a year by 2010 from $25 billion, the current level.

The sizable increase in aid to depressed countries, including the African pledge, was the most important and heartening achievement of a meeting whose successes owed much to the generous, disciplined agenda set by Mr. Blair, the conference chairman, and his willingness to see it through to the end despite the distraction of the awful events in London.

Yet the meeting fell short of Mr. Blair's expectations - indeed, of the world's expectations - in important ways. Sad to say, the foot-dragging of the United States, particularly on the issue of global warming but also on aid, was largely responsible for most of these shortcomings.

In addition to doubling the dollars committed to Africa, the conference members agreed to cancel the debts of many countries, to do more to fight diseases like AIDS and malaria, and, in terms that were regrettably vague, to reduce trade barriers. They also pledged as much as $3 billion a year to help the Palestinians after Israel withdraws later this summer from Gaza and parts of the West Bank - a gesture that could be enormously important as long as the United States and others make sure that both sides honor their commitments.

The conference fell well short, however, of ending the agricultural subsidies that help keep farmers in developing nations in poverty. And Mr. Blair was not successful in his broader effort to persuade the United States to set a timetable for increasing its overall foreign aid to a level equal to 0.7 percent of national income by 2015. That step would require a much larger contribution by the United States, which currently provides 0.16 percent, the smallest percentage of any of the Group of 8 countries. Europe agreed to a timetable, but Mr. Bush would not.

The summit meeting's biggest disappointment involved global warming, an issue that Mr. Blair had elevated above all others except foreign aid. In what will stand as a testament to America's influence but not, unfortunately, to its intelligence or courage, the White House succeeded in turning what might have been a powerful commitment by the industrialized nations to confront global warming into diplomatic mush.

The communiqué acknowledges that climate change is a serious "long term" challenge, though "immediate" challenge would have been more to the point. The 1998 G-8 communiqué, by contrast, described climate change as "the greatest environmental threat to our future prosperity."

The new communiqué further commits all eight nations to work together and in partnership with major developing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It does not dispute - as Mr. Bush's administration has done so often - the mainstream scientific view that warming is occurring and that humans and human industrial activity are largely responsible. And perhaps most important, it promises to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at levels that will prevent environmental catastrophe.

But these goals are vaguely stated, and, worse, there is nothing approaching a road map for achieving them. Mr. Blair had hoped for much more: mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, like those already in effect in Europe; a trading system to mitigate compliance costs; concrete financial commitments to new technologies; specific targets for energy efficiency. But the White House would have none of it, clinging instead to Mr. Bush's approach of asking industry for voluntary reductions.

The net result is that little has changed on the warming issue. The rest of the industrialized nations are moving forward, honoring, however imperfectly, their commitments to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and its goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by 2012. America's state governments and its mayors are devising emission-reduction plans of their own. Even the United States Senate has committed itself, on paper, to a program of mandatory reductions, with hearings to begin later this month.

And Mr. Bush? Isolated, a wallflower at the dance, and apparently content to be one.

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