Commentary: Bush Stole the Show. Now What?

At the G-8 summit, there was talk on urgent matters, such as debt relief for emerging nations

By John Rossant

This was, said France's daily newspaper Libération, the summit where French President Jacques Chirac expected to be crowned "king of the non-George Bush world." The elements were certainly there for a coronation. Of course, the Group of Eight summit, held from June 1-3 in Evian, France, is normally billed as a chance for leaders of the world's richest nations to talk about the global economy. But Chirac had his own plans: For the first time in the summit's 28-year history, the proceedings were opened up to members of the developing world. This would be a chance to show that France and Europe really did care about poverty, disease, and inequality in the world. Not like...oh, well, no need to mention names.

Guess what? George Bush stole the show. He arrived in the laid-back spa town hours after exhorting other wealthy countries to match America's $15 billion five-year program to fight AIDS. That put to shame Europe's paltry efforts to combat the scourge -- such as the French government's own $57 million outlay last year on AIDS projects. Bush told his co-leaders that U.S. contributions to the U.N.'s Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria are now seven times the size of pledges from the next-largest donor, Germany. Bush also announced that the Millennium Challenge Account, the White House's poverty-fighting initiative aimed at Africa, would reach $5 billion annually by 2006.

There was more to come -- and from a President who is supposed to disdain all multilateral efforts. Bush got fellow G-8 leaders to sign on to new initiatives fighting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, even getting them to single out North Korea and Iran. And since G-8 meetings are, at heart, about economics, Bush reported that U.S. growth was set to clock in at close to 3% in this year's second half -- vs. barely 1% in recessionary Europe. With that, the American President left the summit a day early, an unprecedented move: He had to fly on to Egypt and Jordan to help bring peace to the Middle East. Your move, Monsieur Chirac.

Two months after the fall of Baghdad, Bush still occupies center stage. There are two lessons to draw from this command performance. One concerns the Europeans: They have to do a sight better if they want to set up a convincing counterbalance to the U.S. When you think about it, any gestures Chirac made at the G-8 were bound to be hollow. Continental economies are performing too poorly to give him much clout in setting world policy. The French and Germans cannot afford a decent army, let alone a global AIDS initiative. The U.S. can afford both. Easily.

The second lesson applies to Bush himself. From a rough start, he has proven adroit at managing these public moments. That's good, since the U.S. must lead in so many areas.

But in leading, Bush has to pay as much attention to the details as the stagecraft -- details he has to work out with the allies. And a lot was left on the table at Evian. Advocates of the emerging nations wanted movement on debt relief and cheap AIDS drugs. Not much was accomplished. With Europe and the U.S. at loggerheads over tough issues like farm subsidies, the World Trade Organization can't make much headway in pursuing the next round of trade talks. Serious dislocations still dog the global economy as Europe struggles to break its pattern of too-slow growth. Not much engagement there, either. On the dollar, there was downright confusion: Does the White House want a strong dollar to anchor world trade or a weak one to push the U.S. forward at the expense of Europe? Above all, the deep question hanging over the summit -- when will an effective Atlantic alliance be restored to full health? -- remained unanswered.

Bush is still creating new models for the U.S. Presidency and for multilateralism, American-style. Chirac and others are still trying to respond. All should remember the advantages of the old alliance -- a general commitment to free trade, a belief in markets, a willingness to act in concert. At some point, we'll need each other.

Regional editor Rossant covers European politics from Paris.

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