THE BIRMINGHAM SUMMIT: World crises spike Blair's agenda

Click to follow
TONY BLAIR and seven of the most powerful men in the world were closeted at Weston Park in rural Shropshire for much of yesterday in the informal seclusion that Mr Blair had wanted for "his" global summit. But in the months of planning for a quieter, simpler summit, the Prime Minister had reckoned without the unpredictable ways of the world. This year, for the umpteenth time since such world summits were inaugurated at Rambouillet in 1975, the agenda was overtaken by events - the Indian nuclear tests and riots in Indonesia.

The advance agenda - combating international crime, Third World debt, and employment - had hardly been calculated to produce fireworks. The countryside venue for discussions ensured that the media were kept physically at arm's length. The number of "summitteers" had also been slimmed by the decision to banish from this weekend's gathering the finance and foreign ministers, who met last weekend in London. That tactic also shifted the emphasis somewhat away from economics towards politics.

Sudden international crises, however, were not so easy to banish. In the five days between the dispersal of the foreign ministers' meeting and Friday, when the leaders arrived at Birmingham, India conducted five underground nuclear tests. Then Indonesia, recently congratulated for finally taking the medicine prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and hinting at recovery, erupted in riots that could yet topple President Suharto.

Inevitably, the summit agenda had to be augmented. These two developments were matters of urgency that separately threatened much of the present international order. The media could not be kept at bay, and the Birmingham summit became a focus for the world.

In fact, hijacked agendas are by now almost a tradition of Group of Seven summits (now Eight to include Russia). Seven years ago, in London, an only half-bidden guest, the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, turned the spotlight on his creaking empire and the fragility of his own position, but left disappointed.

Two years ago, at Lyons, the new French President, Jacques Chirac, wanted to concentrate on social inequity in the developed world - one of the messages from his election campaign - and global economic disparity, and he wanted to lead. On the eve of the summit, terrorists bombed a US barracks building in Saudi Arabia. The fight against international terrorism became the order of the day, with President Clinton in the vanguard.

Last year, at Denver, it was the American hosts who found themselves outflanked. High on their agenda was to broadcast to the world the success of the US "economic model". In a conference centre so close to abject dereliction that even the chauffeured leaders could catch a glimpse, the Europeans and Canadians, led by a fuming President Chirac, made common cause against US "triumphalism".

It was in response to this combination of negative, but spontaneous, culture wars and the formalistic paragraphing of interminable foreign policy statements that Mr Blair wanted to recapture something of earlier, more innocent, summits. He wanted ideas to be exchanged in an atmosphere where, because formal agreement was not mandatory, disagreement was no shame.

The challenge presented by India and Indonesia, however, made this almost impossible. The US, Europe and Russia were at odds over how to respond to India. And what if Pakistan were to conduct its own nuclear test while the G8 was in progress?

Indonesia offered even more fertile soil for discord. Already on the summit agenda was the question of what lessons, if any, should be learnt by international financial organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank from the Asian financial crisis. With the deteriorating position in Indonesia has come the search for culprits: is it the IMF, for the "mistake" it admitted in its early intervention; is it President Suharto for his reluctance to adopt IMF remedies, or the years of US indulgence of a corrupt, but pro- Western, regime?

As the leaders prepared to re-emerge into the limelight yesterday evening, it was clear that Mr Blair's quiet, simple summit had turned out to be nothing of the kind.

Indonesia crisis, page 17

Will Pakistan test a bomb? page 22