The 'Insignificant 7' Able to Claim Progress


That they were able to produce at least a commitment to promote global growth, a hand-out to help the Russians, and renewed condemnation of the Serbs and Croats suggests that these ritualized get-togethers do more good than harm.

There was nothing new in their approach to boosting economic activity: The indebted Americans and Canadians should spend less and save more; the rich Japanese should buy more and sell less; and the under-active Europeans should cut interest rates.

To one degree or another all this things are happen- ing. The Clinton administration is committed to cutting the deficit $500 billion in five years; the Japanese have just introduced a spending package; the Germans, Europe's economic meisterclass, have lowered their interest rates.

Basically, the summiteers were simply saying the obvious, that it will take more of the same to kick-start a tripodal world economy with three weak legs (North America, Japan, Europe). What they now have to do is go home and strengthen each of those legs. That has been proving very difficult.

The challenge, however, might just be made a little easier by the summit agreement to reduce tariffs on a series of manufactured goods. This will have a direct impact on international trade, and should increase sales and, thereby, production and jobs in the affected industries.

Perhaps as importantly, the agreement kept alive hope that the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, a seven-year marathon of minutiae, actually might be concluded between the 114 participating nations by year's end.

By opening markets worldwide, this would give a major boost to global economic activity, pumping billions of dollars into circulation.

While not quite the breakthrough the Seven would have us believe, it was markedly better than the outcome of previous summits which have routinely pledged to give the GATT talks a push, and then produced no action.

This summit at least was a catalyst for action toward the major goal of a tariff-free world, but there remain many "t"s to cross and "i"s to dot, and many more countries to get on board before the barriers fall.

One of the ironies of this summit was Boris Yeltsin's stature as perhaps the most popular and secure of the assembled presidents, prime ministers and chancellor.

Suffice to say that the leader of one of the world's newest democracies had more going for him back home, in terms of support following April's referendum, than most of those from the old seats of freedom who have to look downward to see their poll standings.

President Bill Clinton arrived as the least popular of post-war U.S. presidents at this stage in a first term, Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa was a host serving out his time after a vote of no confidence and the clamor of an election campaign all around reminded participants of his discomfort, President Francois Mitterrand is a man whose age is finally taking its toll, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is paying the high price of unity, and British Prime Minister John Major returned home still wondering when he will hit the floor of unpopularity.

There were two newcomers at the meeting: Kim Campbell, who replaced Bryan Mulroney as Canadian prime minister just before he fell completely into oblivion, and Italy's Carlo Ciampi, whose major claim to fame is that he has not been caught in the scandal that has engulfed almost the entire Italian political class. France's Premier Eduard Balladur was a no-show, suggesting he had more important things to do at home, or, as the Financial Times wryly suggested, realized "that he had nothing to lose and much to gain by steering clear of the event."

The summit acknowledged Mr. Yeltsin's progress by accepting him more as the representative of a future capitalist nation than of a former Communist one. His welcome was in line with his country's aspirations, and the agreement to find $3 billion to speed the privatization of Russian industry as the ultimate guarantee of reform was an expression of multilateral self-interest, a latter-day version of the Three Musketeers life-or-death battle cry "All for One, and One for All."

No such harmony could be found on events in the former Yugoslavia. What Warren Christopher once dubbed "the problem from hell" continues to defy resolution. The summit, substituting the threat of a trade embargo for its previous warning of armed intervention, was able to do little more than urge settlement even as the marauding Serbs and Croats continued to carve up Muslim territory.

For Mr. Clinton it was a chance to establish his youthful primacy, which he did with campaign-like zeal, enthusiastically seizing on the tariff reduction as a major break-through, introducing himself to the Japanese by pressing the flesh and answering their questions at a "town meeting," and reassuring them of his commitment to Asian stability and development.

At the end of it all, he seemed to have enjoyed himself, steeping himself in diplomatic crises from the threat of nuclear proliferation in North Korea to strengthening the United Nations.

"There was more done here, there was more energy, more zip in it, than I thought there would be," he said.

But behind all the folderol, there remained both the major and minor problems. The summit, as usual, was an occasion of small steps and large statements, of low horizons and high hopes.

The U.S.-Japanese spat over market access was not quieted. The U.S.-European differences over what to do in the Balkans were not resolved. What to do about North Korea's nuclear ambitions remained unclear. The Russian-Japanese disagreement over who should control the disputed islands in the North Pacific remained as bitter as ever.

The summit, however, once more provided a useful forum to for both political and economic brainstorming; history will judge whether it was worth the estimated $10 million the Japanese lavished on it.

Since former French president Valerie Giscard d'Estaing started the ritual in front of the fireplace of the Chateau Rambouillet outside of Paris in 1975, the industrial world leaders have found it worth their while to meet in each other's countries by annual rote to pursue a cooperative approach to world problems. Tokyo has yielded nothing to persuade them to abandon the good cause.

! Next year: Italy.

Gilbert Lewthwaite writes about economic issues from the Washington bureau of The Baltimore Sun.

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