By Mark Engler
30 May, 2003
Evian, France -- the world
capital of designer water -- may be a fitting city to host the heads
of state from the eight most powerful industrial nations. But the image
of wealthy leaders sipping "l'original" gourmet H20 will hardly
help the G8, as the exclusive group is known, to defend itself against
charges of being an elitist and undemocratic forum.
Given that many in this group
of countries opposed the invasion of Iraq, commentators will be closely
watching the how tensions between the U.S. and "Old Europe"
evolve during President Bush's trip to France. However, the real clash
in international vision will be taking place outside the meeting halls,
on the streets.
Debt and arms control, two
important issues on the Evian meeting's agenda, show that those who
gather to protest are not only voicing important criticisms about the
illegitimacy of the meeting, but are also proposing vital solutions
to international problems.
Debt relief, the question
of whether wealthy nations should free poorer ones from the burden of
making crushing loan payments, has held a central place in discussion
in G8 meetings over the last five years. This year, the debate is back
again, but in an unusual form. The United States, which has traditionally
been among the most reticent to grant real debt relief, now argues that
forgiveness is essential -- for Iraq.
Iraq owes upwards of sixty
billion dollars to foreign creditors, plus reparations for its invasion
of Kuwait. President Bush is concerned that, without relief, the country
would be forced to spend so much of its economic resources on debt service
that reconstruction would be impossible.
The other G8 countries don't
necessarily disagree. However, European leaders are not thrilled about
having the debt debate hijacked at the service of unilateralist U.S.
foreign policy prerogatives. The Bush administration's treatment of
other debtor countries suggests that the President's newfound sympathy
has more to do with vindicating his "regime change" than with
any humanitarian change of heart.
Just last month, the White
House blocked the creation of a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism
at the International Monetary Fund. Although most of the world, including
European trade ministers, supported the mechanism -- in essence a global
bankruptcy court -- the U.S. argued that it would be too expensive to
even consider allowing debt-crushed countries to legally default on
their private loans.
The example of Iraq illustrates
a point that protestors from the Jubilee debt relief coalition have
made for years: Much of the debt held by countries in the developing
world is in fact "odious" -- the result of loans that wealthy
creditors made to tyrannical governments. It is simply inhumane for
G8 countries, including the U.S., to saddle impoverished citizens these
debts after the dictators fall.
If wealthy countries are
serious about aiding freedom, they must recognize the illegitimacy not
only of Iraq's obligations, but of all odious debt.
Disarmament and non-proliferation,
which will rank high on the Evian meeting's agenda, represent a second
area in which protesters, rather than the governments, are offering
humane international solutions.
During its action in Iraq,
the U.S. presented itself as the only country willing to take the lead
against weapons of mass destruction. But the U.S. has impeded virtually
every major diplomatic effort at arms control now on the map -- from
the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty,
the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and the biological weapons treaty
to new efforts to control land mines, small arms, the sale of weapons
to repressive governments, or the deployment of arms in space.
The G8 as a whole has a somewhat
better record. However, the fact that countries like France, Russia,
Germany and the U.K. stand with the U.S. as the world's leading dealers
of conventional weaponry has often led them to oppose restrictions on
arms sales to dictators. These five countries together were responsible
for nearly $83 billion worth of arms transfers between 1997 and 2001.
Recognizing that an effective
pursuit of a safer world cannot be based on the narrow self-interest
of world powers, popular movements have demanded strong controls on
the production, use, and marketing of weaponry -- whether conventional,
chemical, or nuclear.
The non-proliferation proposals
that Jacques Chirac intends to put on the table at Evian will no doubt
merit international attention. But since the U.S. and other G8 countries
consistently bargain based on shortsighted visions of their national
well-being, their watered-down agreements will fall far short of the
vision of "human security" advocated on the streets.
Protesters' arguments about
arms and debt illustrate a larger criticism of the G8. Having powerful
global elites get together to shape the current world order may be realpolitik,
but it's not democracy. Nor are the institutions that the G8 has championed,
like the World Trade Organization and the IMF, representative bodies
of global governance.
If the goal is freedom, or
making the world a safer place, then rule by the rich will never prevail.
Until the official venues are reconstituted to allow the voices of the
world to speak, protests outside will be needed to call for a real multilateralism.
(Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a commentator for
Foreign Policy in Focus. He can be reached via the web site . Research
assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.)