Why This Year's G8 Summit Matters

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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.

Putin's No-Show: Host Obama will also need to accommodate an unexpected but familiar guest, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, standing in for new (and old) President Vladimir Putin--who is apparently determined to snub the U.S. president after an election campaign replete with anti-American rhetoric--as well as growing pique at congressionally-inspired moves to punish Russia for its human rights abuses. Putin's move surely annoyed White House officials who had shifted the G8 meeting from Chicago (which will host the NATO summit immediately afterwards) in part to placate non-NATO member Russia. At Camp David, the question for the G8's Western leaders will be whether they can actually pocket commitments from the more sympathetic Medvedev--or whether he is even empowered to speak for Russia.

Bolstering Nuclear Nonproliferation: Over the past decade, the G8 has become a hub of efforts to control and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons. Camp David will review progress. This includes evaluating implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (which requires UN members to prevent WMD from falling into the hands of nonstate actors), as well as efforts to build on the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits, in assisting nations in improving the security of their nuclear and radiological holdings. The G8 is unlikely, however, to achieve major progress to confront the challenge of Iran, despite increased concerns contained in IAEA reports of the potential military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program. Given Russia's cool(ing) relations with the West, the final communiqué is unlikely to call for anything more than full Iranian compliance with its international obligations.

Delivering on Food Security: The sole session at Camp David devoted to development will focus on how to bring reliable food supplies to the one billion people who go to bed hungry. In 2009, at their summit in Italy, the G8 launched the L'Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI). That initiative, championed by president Obama, committed donors to invest $22 billion over the next three years in agricultural development, with a particular emphasis on empowering women smallholders. At Camp David, the G8 will take stock of what's been done over the past three years--and have invited four African heads of state to join them for this conversation. The bottom line: the international community has been slow to deliver on aid, disbursing only 22 percent of the $22 billion as of last July, thanks in part to low recipient absorptive capacity. Contributions to a trust fund set up to support AFSI have also lagged: Of the forty plus donors in L'Aquila, only seven have pledged money to it. More disturbingly, the nongovernmental organization ActionAid reports that donors have sidestepped country-owned plans with at least three quarters of their assistance.

Given fiscal realities, the Obama administration and other donors are reluctant to pledge additional agricultural aid and are instead focusing on stimulating private sector involvement in African agriculture--through reforms to land tenure, credit services, trade liberalization, and the like. Such changes are long overdue. But it's unclear that private sector investment alone will address the chronic malnutrition that afflicts at least 200 million children around the world. A comprehensive approach to global food security must include a public investment component, reflect the priorities of local farmers, and focus on human nutrition as well as simple food production.

This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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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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