WORLD

Paralysis at the summit

Marci McDonald June 18 1984
WORLD

Paralysis at the summit

Marci McDonald June 18 1984

Paralysis at the summit

WORLD

Marci McDonald

As a working session of seven Western heads of government at the 10th Economic Summit in London broke up last week, closed-circuit television cameras suddenly caught one world leader emerging from the meetings in solitary frustration. He paced alone outside Lancaster House with his tie askew and his hands plunged dispiritedly in his pockets—a striking image of a man who was losing patience with the lumbering machinery of global decision-making. That posture, more than any other, summed up Pierre Trudeau’s exit from the international scene as Canada’s Prime Minister. After 48 hours of hard bargaining, Trudeau succeeded in salvaging a partial victory for an initiative that he had hoped would

crown his seven-month peace initiative and serve as a fitting swan song to his 16 years on the world stage.

The Prime Minister had pressed his colleagues to issue a separate summit declaration underlining the points of view shared by the West and the Soviet Union as a means of convincing Moscow to reopen nuclear arms reduction talks. But the six other leaders, including President Ronald Reagan, who has been polishing his own image as a peacemaker in the run-up to the November election, refused to concede him that parting gift without a struggle. They rejected a text that Trudeau had proposed, substituting one that specified the United States’ readiness for peace talks “anywhere at any time without preconditions.” Said Trudeau of the outcome: “It’s always a very frustrating

experience. You never get exactly as much as you want.”

The Prime Minister was not alone in his frustration with the 2V2-day gathering, which ended on the weekend. Around the world many observers criticized the $4.5-million event, widely condemned as an exercise in smug selfcongratulation designed to cover up the very real problems currently threatening the international economy. Indeed, in one of the most damning charges of all, British commentator Peter Jenkins denounced the summit as a “conspiracy of complacency.” For her part, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the hostess, set a tone that was designed to be comforting and bland. She was determined to avoid confrontation, not for herself but for Reagan, who used a 10day European trip—which culminated

with the summit—to kick off his reelection campaign.

Thatcher’s efforts to prevent attacks on Washington led to the issuing of a vague communiqué which contained a general pledge to attempt to reduce budget deficits. But many of the leaders privately expressed concern that the wording was too weak. Said Finance Minister Marc Lalonde: “We are trying to send a message that is a little more balanced. But we must keep on pressing and pressing.” Still, even Thatcher could not prevent France, Canada and Britain from issuing spirited diatribes against the problems that U.S. interest rates are causing—not only in summit countries but in the Third World. French Finance Minister Jacques Delors, for one, denounced the Americans’ “deep insensitivity” on the interest rate issue. But the U.S. delegation responded with a standard argument: high interest rates are not related to Washington’s $200-billion budget deficit. Said Trudeau: “The communiqué does not have as strong language as everyone hoped to get.”

Reagan was not the only summit leader with electioneering concerns. Every participant but Trudeau is currently facing some sort of test, from next

week’s vote for the European parliament to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone’s bid to for re-election in the fall. As a result, the innocuous final declarations were the product of elaborate trade-offs aimed at allowing each leader to appease domestic audiences. As part of the process, Thatcher muted her opposition to a Japanese proposal for a new round of trade talks next year. That allowed Nakasone to assume the position of a free-market champion, avoiding the usual attacks which his partners have levelled at Japan for its tight-laced protectionism.

French President François Mitterrand lost out in an attempt to convince the summit to issue a sweeping statement of global principles for easing the burdens of Third World debt. But he succeeded in preventing his colleagues from making specific proposals on controlling terrorism—Thatcher’s main objective—which would have tarnished France’s reputation as a refuge for political exiles and provoked stinging attacks from some members within the French government coalition.

West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was also anxious to please his domestic supporters. He convinced the leaders to issue an astonishing threepage declaration on democratic values designed to ease his embarrassment over the 40th anniversary celebrations of D-Day, which Mitterrand, Trudeau and Reagan had attended in Normandy only a day before the summit opened. Excluded from the celebrations of his country’s Second World War defeat, Kohl wanted a face-saving gesture to show that West Germany is now a full partner with its allies. But Kohl insisted that his name not be linked to the declaration. As a result, summit officials were suddenly tongue-tied when the media demanded to know the origins of the document. Said one senior British official: “You could say it was a virgin birth.”

Trudeau arrived from Ottawa with his idea for a statement that might induce the Soviet Union back to arms negotiations, without having discussed it in advance. When the leaders launched into a prolonged debate on East-West relations during the opening dinner of chicken kiev at 10 Downing Street, he produced his draft text. But the initiative had probably been doomed from the outset. Thatcher had forewarned that this year’s meeting of the seven leaders would not be a “crisis summit.” Indeed, she was determined to use it to build public confidence in shaken global institutions by presenting the picture of a united alliance which had the world’s problems under control —particularly the difficult task of containing inflation while sustaining the somewhat uncertain economic recovery.

Said Thatcher: “Surely the first message of the summit should be this: ‘the strategy is the right one, and we intend to stick to it.’ ”

The Iron Lady could not prevent the summit from dealing with two extremely sensitive issues: the ticking time bomb of international debt and the threat of a gulf war provoking another energy crisis. Still, the communiqué blithely emphasized the West’s large existing oil stocks, and, despite a plea from seven Latin American countries to help find solutions to the region’s crushing $350-billion foreign debt, the leaders placed responsibility for the problem squarely with the commercial banks and the International Monetary Fund. In doing so they ignored a warning from Lord Harold Lever, former economic adviser to British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan, that the $800 billion in debts of the less developed countries are so large that they cannot possibly repay them. Said Lever: “The banking system of the West has become hostage to its overseas debtors.”

In choosing to depart from the gilded isolation of previous sites, such as Montebello, Versailles and Williamsburg, Thatcher’s organizers sought to conduct the summit in a real-life setting. But security nevertheless was rigid, virtually paralysing London. Chaotic traffic tie-ups developed, and a 100,000-strong antinuclear demonstration turned Regent’s Park around the U.S. ambassador’s residence, where Reagan stayed, into an armed camp fenced off by crash barriers and scanned by mobile searchlights. Later on the weekend, 150,000 antinuclear protesters staged demonstrations—timed to coincide with Reagan’s visit—which paralysed the capital. Sirens and motorcycles screeched through the city during the summit’s daily working sessions, held in an ornate former private palace in which Chopin once played for Queen Victoria. And Londoners stared at the spectacle of six regular limousines followed by Reagan’s—an enormous armored Cadillac with the presidential seal on the side. U.S. officials flew the vehicle from Washington, and in London three armed secret servicemen rode its bumpers.

After a weekend of talking that produced no new solutions to pressing economic problems and no new political initiatives, the leaders probably anticipated that some critics would question the necessity for holding the summit at all. Said Trudeau: “It would be permissible to ask, ‘Was it worthwhile?’ But if only the press could realize that there ain’t much news going to come out of it, it would be a lot better. Leaders wouldn’t be worried about their images when they come back home.”