After the Summit
Gaining a Consensus
Watching the leaders of the G8 sitting around for a photo op in an oversized beach chair - the Strandkorb, a favorite on the shores of Germany's northern coasts - might have been an interesting image for many Germans this week. Such chairs are design to protect the bathers from the strong winds that continually rip across the beaches. But then when you emerge from the chairs, you have to hold on to your hats.
Following the Heiligendamm summit, the leaders are returning to their respective capitals to face their domestic winds and each will have to hold on to their political hats. The host of the G8, Chancellor Merkel, might feel that the summit put the wind at her back for a while, having successfully negotiated a declaration with which all participants could agree. Her main focus was getting a consensus on climate change and right up until the meeting took place she was publicly uncertain as to whether she could pull it off. But she was visibly pleased that the big bottleneck, that being President Bush, was overcome and that a way to proceed toward reducing greenhouse emissions was found, or, as the communiqué said, would 'seriously be considered.'
Regardless of how complicated the steps ahead will be to implement the good intentions, Merkel was able to send a message to her own constituents that she was a good manager of a very complicated equation. The fact that climate change issues have been placed more squarely under the roof of the United Nations will immediately appeal to the Germans who think of the East River building in New York as more of a cathedral than do the Americans, who at best think of it more like Wal-Mart. Equally important is that Merkel once again demonstrated her ability to deal with President Bush in such a way that he appeared to be making serious concessions in contrast to his previous positions of rejecting both the Kyoto Protocol as well as the idea of setting specific targets for emission reductions. Of course, Bush made a speech earlier in the week calling for an Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which would focus on sharing technology that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions especially in developing countries. While some saw that move as a way to preempt the agenda in Heiligendamm, the end result appears to be that there can be a road beyond Kyoto, and it can run through China, India and many other countries which had not been part of Kyoto under the UN hat.
Of course, this will happen on the watch of a new president in 2009 and it remains to be seen what that person will want to do with this issue. Merkel of course will still be in office and will be able to carry her own momentum to the new occupant of the White House that year, and most likely, for an additional four years after that.
Challenges at Home
Bush comes home next week to a lot of wind in his face. The immigration bill he supports appears to be collapsing in Congress, his newly appointed Czar for Iraq and Afghanistan gave a very sober and less-than-optimistic picture of the future in Baghdad and Kabul to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this week, the former chief of staff to the Vice President, Scooter Libby, was sentenced to a jail term, and the Attorney General is looking at a Congressional vote of no confidence. This is in addition to the continuing slide in polls at home and abroad.
The President might have thought that taking a position on climate change would contribute to improving his image, particularly because there is increased domestic pressure on Washington to deal with climate change and environmental regulatory policy not only from many states but also from corporations seeking some consistency in regulations. Yet, the fact is that the event that got more play in the American media during Heiligendamm was the Putin-Bush exchange over missile defense, rather than climate change.
While Chancellor Merkel can expect that the climate change issue will remain of high importance to a German electorate, Bush cannot. Despite the wave of interest in Al Gore's film, the candidates running for office, Democrat or Republican, are not running with that issue high on their agendas, at least to date. Whatever the President can do with regard to climate change in his remaining time left in office, he will not find it as a means to overcome the main legacy of his presidency, the Iraq war.
A Better Situation
For Merkel, the situation is quite different. She returns to Berlin with a media echo primarily positive about her performance at the summit. The criticisms aimed at her are for the most part about the fact that the original objective of setting specific targets for greenhouse gas reductions were not met, and that there is too much wiggle room remaining for the main offenders like the U.S. Yet, the overall impression shared throughout much of Germany and Europe is that the Chancellor has been quick and efficient in her use of the international roles she has exercised this year. Be it in Brussels, as president of the EU, or as head of the G8, she has demonstrated a knack for forging deals. She is surely going to need the credits she is storing up for a more challenging year in 2008 when she will be facing some significant state elections that will test her popularity on the domestic front.
So how does one measure success in Heiligendamm? Perhaps the recognition that there is a benchmark for understanding the problem of climate change and even a closer consensus on how to discuss it would be one measure. Finding common language to define a problem is half way to solving it. Yet, the guts of that other half remain bound up in the struggle of each country with its individual choices, be it with regard to aid for Africa or combating AIDS The G8 members do not make laws or policies; they only make process, and that is always subject to the changing political winds at home. Unfortunately for President Bush, there are no Strandkörbe in Washington to protect him from the winds. Merkel can bask a bit in her political Strandkorb for the moment, but the winds will keep blowing in Germany as well.
This essay appeared in the June 8, 2007, AICGS Advisor.
Photo credit: G8 Official Website