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Impressions of the G8 Foreign Ministers Meeting

John Kirton, G8 Research Group
Paris, May 23, 2003

In answering the lead-off question at the news conference concluding the G8 foreign ministers meeting in Paris on May 22-23, 2003, Canadian foreign minister Bill Graham, in reference to progress in Afghanistan, recalled Colin Powell’s judgement at the meeting that the glass was half full. It was a fitting judgement for this G8 meeting as a whole, especially in regard to its central drama of whether its members’ recent divisions over Iraq had at long last been overcome. Both Colin Powell and French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin pronounced their countries’ bilateral relationship to be "excellent." But both equally refused to paper over the deep divisions caused by the Iraq conflict, and noted they were still working to repair the damage that the Iraq division had done.

In addition to host de Villepin, Powell and Graham, the meeting was attended by Britain’s Jack Straw, Russia’s Igor Ivanov, Japan’s Yoriko Kawaguchi, Italy’s Franco Frattini, Germany’s Joschke Fischer and two representatives of the EU. Those counting trans-Atlantic and G8 unity by contact hours among ministers could note that it was Germany’s Fischer who rushed out early, while America’s Powell stayed quite happily to the very end. Those monitoring the substance of the meeting’s communiqué could claim that the single, concluding "Summary of the G8 Presidency" contained 27 concrete commitments, broadly defined, a slight advance on the 24 of the meeting the previous year. The meeting and its communiqué covered 12 issues and regions. It focused on security, North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Israel and Palestine, but included Iran, Colombia, SARS (and thus implicitly China), Congo, Georgia, India-Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It was a nicely balanced text, with the American-Russian security preoccupation leading off a document that went on to make ample reference to the G8’s support for the UN. Those focusing on the empty half of the glass would note that many of the commitments were calls upon outsiders to do things, that few asked G8 members to behave in particular ways, and that commitments about Iraq itself were virtually nonexistent. While all G8 members supported the UN Security Council resolution passed the previous day, which broke the divisive international logjam over post-war Iraq, it was clear Iraq’s future would be an Anglo-American rather than a G8-wide affair.

However, outside Iraq, there was more than enough for the G8 to do together, and they cheerfully took up the task. Afghanistan alone, ground zero of the war against terrorism received five detailed commitments, building on the results of two G8 meetings — on drugs and of the G8 working group on Afghanistan — held in Paris just before the foreign ministers meeting began. Several other sessions and sections took up emerging issues and broke new ground. The inclusion of a reference to SARS in a political-security document was a clear signal that the G8 considered Communist China’s cult of secrecy and lies to the international community a cause of the disease’s rampant spread throughout China and into neighbouring Taiwan. In all, few global hotspots were left uncovered, although enthusiasts for conflict prevention could deplore the predictably scant references under French chairmanship to a subject that had flourished at G8 foreign ministers meetings in the previous four years. As the Paris installment ended, the drama remained over whether the G8, through their summit at Evian on June 1-3, would enhance or erode the fragile glass of G8 unity that the foreign ministers had poured half full.

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