Why This Year's G8 Summit Matters

It won't solve Syria or world hunger, but the Obama-hosted meeting of world leaders can still take on some major issues.

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Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (L) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama during a round table meeting at the 2011 G8 summit in Deauville. (Reuters)

After so many splashy summits, President Obama's decision to hold this year's Group of Eight (G8) meeting at Camp David is inspired. The success of leaders-level meetings depends, above all, on opportunities for candid conversation away from media flashbulbs and crowded convention halls. The secluded setting--nestled in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains--will provide a welcome intimacy to deliberations among leaders of the world's advanced market democracies. Given their daunting global agenda, they can certainly use the peace and quiet.

The real action may be hidden from view. A year ago the G8 emerged from an early retirement, thanks to its strong performance in Deauville, France. Essentially, leaders from the developed world have clearly decided that it's useful to continue meeting as a smaller group, hammer out some consensus on the major problems that they all confront, and coordinate a response to major global shifts--without having to talk about every (often valid) gripe of all twenty countries in the G20. The seven leaders (not including the Russian substitute) have a diverse set of tasks from their electorates, but are far more aligned than the G20--in terms of both motivations and domestic constraints. The forum isn't likely to trail blaze a path forward on Syria, nonproliferation, or world hunger, but will give some of the world's most powerful men and women a valuable opportunity to understand each other's positions and debate the way forward. So what's on the agenda?

Advancing Political Transition in the Middle East and North Africa: The centerpiece of last year's Deauville summit was its Declaration on the Arab Spring, including the launching of a "Deauville Partnership" designed to foster continued political liberalization and economic development (in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Turkey, and Libya). As the turbulence of the past twelve months has underscored, the path to participatory politics and prosperity in the Arab world remains volatile and uncertain. At Camp David, the conferees will likely reaffirm their support for religious pluralism, democratic principles, anticorruption and the rule of law, market liberalization, and increased women's political participation. (There's just not much more they can do.) The G8 is unlikely to offer any breakthrough initiative on the crisis in Syria, where the Annan Plan has all but collapsed. Following the acrimony of the Libyan intervention, and because of their longstanding support for the Assad regime, Moscow has little appetite to call for stronger coercive steps against Damascus.

Hollande's Arrival: Camp David will mark the first foray into international summitry for François Hollande, France's first Socialist president in seventeen years, who will have been sworn into office just three days before and lacks any foreign policy experience. The assembled leaders will surely press him to walk back two controversial campaign commitments--his pledge to revisit the painstakingly negotiated fiscal pact to stabilize the eurozone and his promise to remove French combat troops from Afghanistan during 2012 (two years ahead of schedule). Europe's budget-cutting treaty finally earned the region a little confidence, but it is already on shaky ground. To prevent it from unraveling, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in particular will need to show flexibility on the pace at which Europe's highly-indebted nations cut spending. As for Afghanistan, NATO insisted last week that it expects France to maintain its troops in the country. If Hollande digs in his heels, the result could be acrimony at the NATO summit immediately following.

Presented by

Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog  The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

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