The Politics of Protest and Posturing
Protesting the Summit
It was Lenin who once said that if a German decides to start a revolution, he would be sure to buy a train ticket to get there. This time, the primary method of transportation will be dozens of buses brings thousands of protesters - and not only Germans - to a small out-of-the-way seaside village in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, not far from where Chancellor Merkel grew up. And this time, the reason is not to mark a revolution, but to protest once again the meeting of eight countries and their guests who make up the so-called G8.
Germany just happens to be the host this year at the same time it is holding the rotating presidency of the EU. So the 2,000 delegates from Canada, France, Italy, Great Britain, the United States, Japan, and Russia convene on Heiligendamm - population 350 - followed by twice that number of journalists covering the event. Over 16,000 police officers drawn from around the country will set up a security zone around the meeting area to the tune of almost €100 million for a meeting which will last two days.
Whose idea was this to begin with? The G8 is a group of self-appointed states who began meeting in 1975 - when it was only the G6 - to talk about the state of the world and what they think and can do about it. It was chiefly the brainchild of the German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who believed an informal gathering of the world's main western world leaders behind closed doors would yield some good ideas about what to do about trade, energy, and anything else they wanted to discuss. Those first few meetings were small, intimate meetings designed to give a chance for the statesmen to get some extra face time together.
Over three decades later, they have become circuses. The gatherings are enormous, expensive, and in many ways only a choreographed stage on which a lot of pronouncements about well-intended reforms and commitments are made and then for the most part not implemented.
Is the G8 Necessary?
So why go through the motions each year? For those hosting the meetings, the challenges have become increasingly about maintaining security and order. While one can question whether the participants can generate any effective results from these meetings, the fact is that hundreds of groups and thousand of protesters see this as an opportunity to bring attention to their concerns and causes, most peacefully but many increasingly with violent intentions. Following the bombings in London around the G8 two years ago in Great Britain, the threat of militants using this gathering as a way to wreak havoc is also very much on the minds of those hosting the meetings.
The Germans decided that they need to build a temporary fence twelve kilometers long and eight feet high around the meeting area to keep protesters at bay. They will have ships patrolling off the coast of the Baltic Sea.
At the same time, the more than two hundred different groups planning more than sixty different events were provided with a kind of headquarters in nearby Rostock to plan their actions.
Amidst all this preparation, expense and activities, it seems logical to raise the questions: who benefits and how?
The G8, similar to the groups gathering to protest, have no official charter other than their self selection. No official body appointed them to carry out this charter. In fact, it would seem that if there was going to be an effort to really generate the world community's engagement around the profoundly important issues to be addressed - world hunger, AIDS, climate change - that community ought to be part of the audience in a formal sense, such as at the United Nations in New York. But the mere fact that these meetings take place in the respective membership countries each year suggests that the UN remains unable to generate sufficient purpose and policies to deal with those issues which the leading most powerful governments in the world should be addressing. On the other hand, the G8 does not include centrally important countries - India, China, Brazil, among others - who represent more than half the world. Just as the permanent five who have vetoes in the UN Security Council reflect more the world as it was in 1945 rather than what it is today, the G8 is less reflective of what the world's dynamics than when the initiative behind it got started more than three decades ago.
And what about all the non-governmental organizations gathering again to take aim at the countries and their governments? Who appointed them to defend the world's interests? And who among them decides that violent tactics trump peaceful protests? These groups have their own agendas, be it rock singers or hooded street fighters wishing to bring the global media's attention to their causes. The G8 becomes the international stage on which legitimate questions can be raised and directed at a collection of countries that have the resources and capability of doing something about them should they choose to.
Chancellor Merkel decided to meet with representatives of the many NGOs who are lobbying for their causes, a gesture to indicate that the G8 is a forum for them as well.
Yet the tactics that are used in trying to lobby one government on a piece of legislation become far more diffuse in trying to lobby eight governments who can hardly find a consensus on their own. Chancellor Merkel's efforts to forge common ground on climate change at Heiligendamm will be a case in point. In her May 24 presentation of the G8 agenda to the Bundestag in Berlin, the Chancellor admitted her own skepticism about reaching agreement in Heiligendamm. (See Merkel's speech linked at the end of this article)
A Chance for Progress
One can argue that in the absence of anything better, this forum is where the world's attention can be drawn for a limited time and perhaps some commitments can actually be followed up on.
And the forum is a snapshot of the process through which we are seeing the increasing confluence of domestic and foreign policy actors and processes impacting on each other and eroding the boundaries of decision making in the global community. That will include all the frustrations and tensions involved in lobbying and bargaining for agreements and actions. This meeting will be the first for the new French president and the last for British Prime Minister Blair and presumably Russian President Putin. That means that all the current domestic changes and adjustments going on in each of those three major countries will feed into the discussions on June 6-8, for better or for worse.
For this meeting, Chancellor Merkel has her main sights trained on climate change, the need for more development aid for Africa, and better global trade conditions in the world market. Yet all of these issues are not new to the G8 agenda. They have all been discussed before and without much action of consequence taken.
What we really need is a change of climate among the nations - the G8 Plus - that is more conducive for problem solving rather than for political posturing. Chancellor Merkel has called for a dialogue that does more to bridge the perceived gaps between growth and responsibility, between economic and environmental policies, and between continents. The measures of success for the meeting, like those which have preceded it, will become visible well after Heiligendamm has reverted to its population of 350. And they will also be seen at next year's G8 if the same agenda is presented once again. Whether that will mean progress has been made or whether we are running in place remains to be seen.
This essay appeared in the May 25, 2007, AICGS Advisor.