Let’s face it: These summit meetings are a bore. Exhausted leaders have to travel halfway around the world at taxpayers’ expense just to pose for the statutory picture with strained smiles and too few women. They sign a declaration of good intentions, the wording of which has been disputed for days by their Sherpas before the actual gathering. They have an ambitious agenda that is immediately forgotten.
The same questions keep being asked: Is the meeting of the wealthiest an insult to the poor? Is Russia truly a Western democracy? Is the Group of 8 still relevant or should it be scratched to give way to the G-20 — a more appropriate representation of today’s world powers?
Yet there is always a good reason to stick to these rituals — at least in the eye of the host, eager to improve his stature and his popular support.
From time to time, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France gets lucky, a true political talent. Today, 11 months before the French election, his presidency of both the G-8 and the G-20 has been widely seen as an asset, strengthening his credentials as a world-class leader. And circumstances play in his favor. Who could deny that the Arab Spring, the Libyan quagmire, the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, the Japanese nuclear disaster, the financial crisis in Euroland and the political demise of Dominique Strauss-Kahn justify a good round of face-to-face discussions within the Western family?
Even Barack Obama — the first ever U.S. president not to display the slightest interest toward Europe when he was first elected — seems to have come to terms with the idea. Now it looks as if drinking Irish ale, speaking in Westminster Hall and strolling the wooden alleys of Deauville have reconciled him to historical roots he had heretofore ignored. Here he is, celebrating Western values and denying their decline at a time when they are both envied and challenged by demography and growth in other parts of the world. A pragmatist who no longer elaborates on American supremacy, Obama knows he needs to rely on old allies to balance the erratic swings of globalization.
But the American president also faces European partners who are more divided than ever on a variety of issues. Long gone is the pretense of a common European policy, or even a harmonized one, when Angela Merkel disagrees with David Cameron and Sarkozy over Libya, when Britain sneers at the euro zone’s difficulties, when Italy and France quarrel over the fate of Tunisian immigrants, when the debts of Greece, Portugal and Spain endanger economic recovery even in the United States.
Beyond belated encouragement to the democratic surge in parts of the Arab world, the G-8 member states — themselves cash-strapped — have pledged $20 billion in aid in to help create political and economic stability in Egypt and Tunisia. Yet Arab youth may not receive the concrete results they expect at Facebook or Twitter speed, which has become the measure of their impatience and despair.
A consensus was easily reached on one issue that the G-8 leaders will not boast about: Syria. Obama may have sounded somehow more reluctant than Cameron and Sarkozy to force Muammar el-Qaddafi out of Tripoli, but they all agree — particularly Dmitri Medvedev — on the need to stick to double-standards when it comes to Bashar al-Assad.
France has failed in its ill-conceived attempts to draw Damascus away from Tehran. Washington, glued to the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, has steadily been losing influence in the Middle East. Obama made a bold speech last week asking for Israel to return to 1967 boundaries — only to be snubbed by Benjamin Netanyahu, who got a standing ovation in Congress, and also by Mahmoud Abbas, disappointed that the U.S. president would not support his request for recognition of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September. On this particular problem, Sarkozy and Cameron are likely to be more insistent than their American counterpart — a poisonous issue for Obama, already engaged into his next presidential campaign.
There is one entry that has not appeared on the G-8 agenda: Afghanistan. The war has been going on for the past 10 years. Nobody seems to know exactly what our young men and women are dying for. The debate remains muted, as if our democracies are not concerned about questioning their own goals. Now that Osama bin Laden is no longer an obstacle to negotiations with the Taliban, why not raise the issue by outlining a clear exit strategy?
For all the promises — “New World, New Ideas,” as the G-8 motto goes — let us not forget that to we French, Deauville forever means “chabadabada …” the tune of the legendary Claude Lelouch movie “A Man and a Woman.” As Michelle went home, there was no Obama romance on “les planches.” But two women have stolen the show: Christine Lagarde, whose candidacy to the I.M.F. top job deserves full G-8 support — and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, pregnant and silent, with a radiant smile.
By Christine Ockrent, a journalist based in Paris.