Meeting end-May at Deauville, France, on the Normandy coast, G8 leaders sounded unambitious to say the least. Given the persistence of low growth and high unemployment in many of these economies, they needed to look to resolving their own problems. But, unable for long to come to any agreement on what should be the focus of their combined attention at the current moment, they opted to address a problem where their role is both minimal and controversial. Rather than look inwards and focus on the economic problems that plague them, they decided to look outward and pose as champions of democracy worldwide.
The summiteers decided to put together from still uncertain sources a sum of $20 billion to support the transition to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt. In defence of that declaration, even if as yet not action, the communiqué reportedly argues that: “Democracy lays the best path to peace, stability, prosperity, shared growth and development.” In keeping with that perspective, the launch of the “Deauville Partnership” between the west and countries that have seen a change of regime in West Asia was presented as the most important outcome of the G8 Summit.
Few will be impressed by the communiqué, not least because the sums pledged by some governments are comparable to individual bonuses paid to bank managers in Wall Street and the City of London. But it is also because some of the economic problems that plague West Asia – such as unemployment, food price inflation and inadequate social security – and explain the spontaneous revolt across countries of the region, are precisely the problems that afflict many of the G8 countries and their allies in Europe. Interestingly, while G8 governments are unwilling to agree on how to address those problems at home, and are in fact aggravating them by focusing on public debt and opting for austerity in the midst of recession, they are backing the forces that are angered by those very problems in the Arab world.
There are clearly three reasons why the G8 leaders have chosen to focus on democracy in West Asia, rather than the economic quagmire they are caught in. The first is the realisation that when it comes to resolving the world’s economic problems the G8 can do little without collaborating with countries such as China, Brazil and India who are part of the G20. With the task of attempting to manage the world economy, if that is possible at all, being transferred unavoidably to the G20, the “rich nations’ club” constituted by the G8 grouping is desperately seeking a new role. The task of building democracy is vague enough to be taken on without having to show clear results.
The second reason is, perhaps, the realisation that in countries such as Afghanistan where the G8 nations are actually engaged in establishing flourishing democracies, either directly or through NATO intervention, failure stares them in the face. As opposed to this, the movement towards democracy in the Arab world, which is an important region also because of its oil reserves, has emerged and spread despite and not because of G8 influence. So the G8 is pushing to find a place among those seen as spearheading a movement that has a modicum of success to show. It is also working to ensure that the access to oil for its members is not troubled by the shape that democracy takes in the region. Not surprisingly, when stopping in England en route to Deauville, President Barack Obama stressed on the need for the US and UK to work together to help spread freedom in the Middle East. As if to reassure himself of the relevance of the Anglo-Saxon countries in world politics, Obama declared that: “The time for our leadership is now.”
The third reason for the focus on democracy in West Asia is that the protests there have come as some kind of a godsend for the G8, which is clearly unable to agree on how to deal with the real danger of sovereign default and a break up of the Eurozone in Europe. With the debt problem unlikely to be resolved in the near future and Maria Damanaki, Greece’s European Commissioner, daring to say that “Greece being distanced from the euro is now on the table” and a return to the Drachma a possibility, the developed world is not short of problems despite the partial respite from the global crisis. Unfortunately, there is no agreement whatsoever among the G8 on what needs to be done. Looking afar may be the best option then.
But, however virtuous and altruistic the G8 may seek to sound, the message is out that while it is driven by self-interest to engage West Asia, its promise of support for democracy is merely a way of turning a blind eye to difficult problems at home.