For G-8, Geopolitics Likely to Trump Economics ; North Korea, Iran, and the Middle East May Dominate This Weekend's Summit, despite Russia's Wish to Promote Energy Security

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The G-8 summit this weekend in St. Petersburg, Russia, was supposed to provide an opportunity for eight of the world's top leaders to discuss energy security, world trade liberalization, and global health and education.

Those topics will still come up, but Iran, North Korea, and the Middle East are clamoring for attention, like uninvited guests at the gates of a sumptuous banquet.

The mere fact that two smaller countries' nuclear ambitions, as well as the escalation of Mideast violence, are likely to dominate this meeting is an indication of how these summits have changed - from economics-focused discussions, to increasingly political gatherings where diversifying viewpoints have made bold action increasingly difficult.

One reason the Group of Eight meetings are increasingly political, some experts believe, is that economic accord is more difficult to reach in the post-cold-war, post-sphere-of-influence era.

"Sometimes on economic summits, the economic issues get the main billing because consensus is approaching and you can bring things to closure. And sometimes when that is not the case, as is the case this year, the politics tend to get a higher billing," Richard McCormack, a former undersecretary of State for economic affairs, told a Washington gathering recently.

Among the areas of economic discord that Ambassador McCormack cites are the Doha round of global trade liberalization negotiations, a disconnect between America's need to address its current account deficit and the developing world's "desperate need" to increase exports, and tension over energy interests in Iran.

Others say the G-8 is simply reflecting diversifying national interests, in a world no longer polarized along East-West lines.

"What we're seeing is the G-8 going with the times," says Constanze Stelzenmueller, a transatlantic security expert who heads the German Marshall Fund's Berlin office. "We now have fissures among the partners, even values differences that are increasingly pronounced, when before the overarching issue [of the cold-war divide] was so much larger that political differences didn't stand out."

Russia's accession to the big-boy club is another factor in the loss of easier consensus. That is especially true at a time when President Vladimir Putin appears to act in an increasingly authoritarian manner toward Russian civil society and some neighbors of the former Soviet Union.

Some experts believe that Mr. Putin is actually out to challenge American leadership with a more controlling, centralized, and less transparent example of government. "I'm not sure we can cooperate that effectively with Russia," says Joshua Muravchik, an expert in international institutions at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington. "At some point, we have to take into account that Russia under Putin is not just aiming to develop its own idea of democracy, but really to counterbalance us."

Indeed, as summit host, Putin intends to showcase a wealthier and more assertive Russia, one he touts as an "energy superpower." And as the one who sets the agenda, Putin has wanted the discussions to focus on energy security - a topic that harks back to earlier summits in the 1970s and '80s, when the group was seven Western democracies against the world's major oil producers. …