It would be a shame if historians wrote that Prime Minister Berlusconi delivered a more meaningful G8 summit than President Obama.
On May 19, Barack Obama will become President of the developed world, for all intents and purposes. That’s when the G8 meeting begins in President Obama’s hometown of Chicago. He will host the heads of the eight most important and powerful countries, and a raft of other dignitaries and officials, in an annual summit that has a rich history and a record of accomplishment.
In every year, the host uses the G8 for their own personal and political advantage, with photo-ops looking powerful and “presidential,” shaking hands with other world leaders, and discussing the most important political and economic issues of the day. In some years, the host has used the G8 summit to promote important international agendas. Increasing foreign assistance, responding to the AIDS crisis, the cause of Africa’s development, reducing the burdensome debt of poor countries; each has featured prominently in past G8 summits.
So, what’s President Obama’s agenda for his G8?
Strangely, we don’t know. With less than three months to go till the summit, things are still very vague from the White House—which is frustrating and could signal a missed opportunity of historic scale. Even if he wins re-election, President Obama will only get to host one G8, this one. So this is his chance to set a big outcome, to deliver a big international win.
A natural area for President Obama to push would be around food security and agriculture development. This has been a keystone international development theme for his Administration, embodied in the Feed the Future initiative. And President Obama used the 2009 G8 summit in Italy to launch the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative which cajoled and leveraged other donors to make funding commitments and to improve their donorship practice. Although former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gets the credit for L’Aquila, President Obama was the driving force.
But for now, we don’t know what President Obama is thinking. What’s his ambition? What’s the goal? Perhaps there’s a secret plan; although we hear, through colleagues and whispers, that other G8 leaders (and G20) are confused and are waiting for a signal from President Obama.
The G8 comes in for a lot of criticism—and rightfully so. It’s an exclusive, rich-man’s club. But the G8 summits have also delivered some impressive outcomes, brought global attention to neglected issues, and helped mobilize the international community around important concerns. Silvio Berlusconi set pretty low standards for behavior in his career. But it would be a shame if historians wrote that Berlusconi delivered a more meaningful G8 summit than President Obama.