Suddenly US President George W. Bush had had enough. No more, he said. Sufficient. It was Wednesday of last week and he was having lunch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hostess of the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm. And the chancellor wouldn't stop insisting that the world's efforts to avert the effects of climate change must be brought under the auspices of the United Nations. Bush, though, was interested in keeping the UN, a constant thorn in his side, out of it.
No one saved the world in Heiligendamm. But a number of important steps were taken. Could the G-8 format actually have a future?Foto: AP
It was his chance to say no. As president of the United States of America, the most powerful country on earth, he had long proven resistant to outside pressure and never shied away from going against the global political grain. The ball was in his court.
But he held back. He even kept his cool when Merkel attempted yet again to beguile him with a fatal mix of self-deprecating girlishness and tenacity. But you know George, she said, how important this is to me.
The approach seemed to work. She managed to convince Bush to relent and, as a result, was able to make an announcement on climate change the next day that she herself called a "huge success." Under the compromise, the US government will agree to climate change policy being set within a UN framework, and it will also "seriously consider" a commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050.
No one saved the world in Heiligendamm. There was no binding commitment from the United States and nothing even approaching a commitment from China and India, and a great deal more action is needed to prevent the earth from warming even further. Environmental organization Greenpeace and Germany's Green Party had nothing but scorn and derision for what they saw as a weak and noncommittal result.
A Bit of World Governing
To share this standpoint, one would have to expect politicians to be omnipotent. And to those who do, Heiligendamm was a failure. But there is another standpoint. After the demise of the Soviet bloc, the United States was for many years a hegemonic power with the freedom to do more or less as it pleased, especially when it came to questions of war and peace. The world had become a unilateral place, with the United States leading and everyone else either following or sulking.
Heiligendamm changed some of that, at least to a small extent. The president of the United States agreed to a compromise on an important issue. The United States no longer looks quite as dominant on the world stage. The G-8 does play a role, after all, as does Europe. Asking ourselves what is the best way to govern the world has once again become a reasonable question. Indeed, there was also a bit of world governing going on in Heiligendamm, as it turned out.
Angela Merkel was the head of this impromptu world government, if only for a moment. It was on Thursday, shortly after three in the afternoon, that she showed up unannounced in the press briefing room, much to the surprise of German journalists who had expected only a government official. It was immediately clear that she was there to announce a success, but she did so almost nonchalantly. She still lacks the dignity of a leader and the demeanor of a chancellor, is emotionless to the point of frostiness, and her announcements of world policy decisions in Heiligendamm were so offhand that they seemed almost sweet. She became bogged down in documents that had been translated into German from English, was often unable to find passages despite spending an inordinate amount of time flipping through pages, and managed to come up with odd-sounding phrases like "the state of stopping."
It wouldn't have been difficult to forget that Merkel is the German chancellor and, as such, currently holds the rotating presidencies of both the G-8 and the European Union, if only she hadn't reminded us of that fact when she said: "I am the boss here, and I have to go so that I can continue to run things." And go she did.
Merkel the Nucleus
This is the way Angela Merkel behaves after a success. This is the way she behaves in her role as temporary head of the world. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave a press conference in Heiligendamm, he had all the tables cleared, had a podium brought in, stood alone in front of the world press and delivered sentences of incredible importance -- or at least delivered them as if they were incredibly important.
But Angela Merkel was undoubtedly in charge at Heiligendamm. She kept a highly visible profile among her fellow heads of state, and she led without making it seem like she was leading. She was simply the nucleus of the meeting without having to take center stage.
There is something puzzling about the whole thing. After her press conference, one might have said that Merkel possesses few of the traits that are normally considered essential to success in the world of politics, the world of illusion. But on Friday morning Germans woke up to headlines about their successful chancellor. It seems that reserve, self-deprecation and Merkel's unique brand of friendliness coupled with a lack of glamour produced a certain measure of success in a world dominated by giant egos. Pragmatism is another element in her recipe for success. "Achieving the achievable in an optimal way" -- this was the way Merkel described her style of leadership and her approach to politics in Heiligendamm.
But how to identify the achievable? For weeks, German officials had wrestled with their American counterparts, bargaining over words and numbers, engaging in negotiations that culminated in a showdown in the days and nights leading up to Heiligendamm. As this finale approached, things weren't looking good for the Europeans. Only a few days before the summit, Bush presented his own proposal for action on climate change that Merkel could only have interpreted as a provocation.
Bush's idea was an alternative to the climate policy of the United Nations. He proposed a plan under which the world's 15 biggest emitters of greenhouse gases would agree to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions through the use of new technologies. But the proposal was full of tentative language, and it lacked concrete goals. It seemed that what Bush wanted was a coalition of the unwilling.
Merkel had to react. She had to gain the solidarity of other G-8 leaders. She invited British Prime Minister Tony Blair to a meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin on the Sunday before Heiligendamm. By that Monday, the Canadians had signaled to the Germans that they would support ambitious climate change goals, and by Tuesday the Japanese had followed suit.
The Anatomy of a Climate Agreement
Nevertheless, Bush remained the decider. A conversation between Merkel and the US president on Wednesday in Heiligendamm was almost enough to turn the summit into a failure before it had even begun. But Bush was also under substantial public pressure at home in America. And at some point he must have realized that he could end up appearing as the only guilty one among a team of Europeans who had come to Heiligendamm to save the world.
In the end, Bush revealed that he is prepared to compromise after all, especially when it comes to the successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol within the framework of the UN. Merkel approached the end of the summit hoping that a number could somehow be inserted into the final after all: a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by the year 2050.
She ordered her summit sherpa, Bernd Pfaffenbach, to continue negotiating with his counterparts from the other countries in attendance while she attended the ceremonial opening dinner with her counterparts at a restaurant just south of Heiligendamm. When Merkel returned to the conference hotel in Heiligendamm at around midnight, she met with Pfaffenbach and her staff in the library of Hohenzollern Castle -- one of the buildings at the beach resort.
At that point, much of what Merkel and her team wanted to see enter the final document, in the way of language and numbers, was still at the draft stage. Everything that was considered controversial was highlighted in parentheses, and by midnight on Wednesday the document still contained many parentheses. The German delegation spent hours thinking about words that would sound clear and resolute, but that would also leave back doors open -- in short, a recipe for saving face.
At about 1 a.m. that night, Merkel and her staff finalized the wording that they wanted to see in the final document: The G-8 nations would guarantee that they would "consider" a reduction in greenhouse gases by at least half by the year 2050.
When Blair met Bush for breakfast on Thursday morning, he made it clear that he would take a position of solidarity with Europe. His spin doctors later said that this breakfast was a decisive moment. But the real breakthrough came at lunch. Over appetizers, Merkel read out the proposed text she and her staff had drafted the night before. The assembled heads of state rose from the table, stood together in small groups, studied the text and, finally, agreed to add one word: "seriously." The Big Eight now planned to "seriously consider" reducing greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2050.
The remarkable thing about these two pages of text in the final statement is that all major industrialized nations agree, for the first time, that global warming is caused by human activity. They also agree that this is a development that must be dealt with, and they acknowledge that the United Nations is the right forum in which to address the problem.
But what is missing is a list of measures, something binding, a concrete idea of how the stated goal is to be achieved, or even what the comparison date is -- 50 percent by 2050, relative to what year? How much of this will prove to be nothing but rhetoric in the future will depend in large part on how seriously the Europeans take their own obligations. But one thing is certain: The United States will not be able to evade responsibility quite as easily as it has in recent years.
Climate policy is now the lever with which the European Union will shape global policy. Heiligendamm may have marked the beginning of a new multilateralism, one in which Europe and the United States are on equal footing.
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy was asked for his assessment of the agreement on climate protection at a press conference on Thursday, he revealed just how self-confident the Europeans are on the issue. Sarkozy made no effort whatsoever to allow the United States to save face. "Until yesterday we had an American president who claimed: There is no problem," he said, and went to cite Bush's contention that climate change, if it exists, has nothing to do with human activity. Sarkozy paused, and then he combined six words to shape a bare, malicious sentence: "Something else became apparent last night."
A World Government?
Sarkozy's comments reflected everything but old-school diplomacy. What made them all the more surprising is the fact that only this spring the French, under then President Jacques Chirac, were reluctant to agree to mandatory climate goals. But the unifying force of the resolution became evident in Heiligendamm. Sarkozy, Blair, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, Merkel and EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso fought untiringly to make Europe's climate goals the global standard.
Barroso proved to be the chancellor's most reliable supporter in Heiligendamm. He appeared before the press when it was time ratchet up the pressure on the Americans, and he did so again when it was time to ratchet up the mood once the climate protection resolution had been reached.
Merkel and Barroso are close when it comes to playing the European political game, and they complement each other well. It is always a relief to watch and listen to Barroso after one of Merkel's typically frosty appearances. Barroso's speech is punctuated with gestures and verbal firecrackers, and for anyone who finds it too effusive, Angela Merkel is never far away. The two leaders personify the differences between North and South, and the way they can come together to form a compatible Europe, one that has finally figured out how to bring together its political strengths and reveal, for the time, traces of a superpower.
Now that the issue of the environment is back on the table, the next question is how the earth can be governed. Threatened by climate catastrophe, the countries of the world have made a step in the direction of more solidarity. Because there are no borders in the sky, national policies must fall by the wayside when it comes to environmental issues. As it becomes increasingly clear that each nation's decisions affect the rest of the world, the question arises as to whether a world government is in fact necessary, a government that has the power to decide for everyone.
Was Heiligendamm the starting point of such a world government? It was, if one considers its outcome, because the G-8 adopted a resolution that puts pressure on all nations.
But are the protestors right, the ones who challenge the G-8's authority to decide for the rest of the world?
There is no doubt that the Group of Eight is a presumption. The temporary rulers of this small, whitewashed seaside resort behaved as if they were also the masters of the world -- a role to which they were not elected. They were allowed to park their ostentatious official aircraft at the airport in nearby Rostock for one reason alone: because, year after year, they reaffirm their mutual conviction that they are indeed the world's leading powers.
By No Means Evil
The UN General Assembly has greater legitimacy, but it would be unable to produce even the meager resolutions of Heiligendamm. Democracy and efficiency are sometimes incompatible. But the leaders assembled in Heiligendamm had more going for them than efficiency alone. They also had proximity, and they benefited from group dynamics and the hope of achieving good results. Based on appearances, at least, the G-8 proved to be a harmonious and sometimes even amusing group of national leaders who allowed themselves the luxury of being human with each other.
On Thursday afternoon, the G-8 leaders could have been observed conversing with eight young people, representatives of a group known as the Junior 8, which was meeting simultaneously in the town of Wismar. After the first J-8 member had given his presentation, Merkel said: "Ok, who would like to respond?" She looked at her counterparts, one after the other, but no one spoke.
"One of us should always respond," said Merkel. She waited, but not very much happened. Sarkozy ran his fingers through his hair, and Bush pursed his lips. "No one?" Merkel asked. "Well, then I'll just start. No problem." But just as she was about to begin, Merkel noticed Blair motioning to her out of the corner of her eye. "Then you respond, Tony," she said.
And so the meeting continued for the next hour. It was an event that featured all the usual elements of group conversation: tiredness, self-praise, mumbling, self-important posturing, checking of mobile phones, grimacing, refusal to listen, daydreaming. One would expect a world government to behave differently. It was both reassuring and chilling to see that the world's problems can also be influenced by the moods of these eight people -- all of them a mixture of statesmen and ordinary people.
Nonchalance and Comradery
The eight leaders, nine with permanent guest Barroso, did seem well balanced and to have developed a rapport with one another. In the evening, when the setting sun had softened the lines of the white resort town and the group had agreed on a prescription against climate change, the members of this temporary world government stepped out onto the hotel terrace for an aperitif. Bush, Blair and Merkel, the first to arrive, sat down on whitewashed wooden chairs. The men had unbuttoned the top buttons of their shirts and were smiling broadly. A waiter arrived with drinks.
Bush sat, sprawled in his chair, his legs crossed and his knee brushing the table, drinking his favorite beer from America, Buckler non-alcoholic brew. He touched glasses with Merkel and Blair, who had ordered a local Pilsner. Romano Prodi joined the group and pulled up a chair. Bush greeted him with a small joke, and Prodi, in return, gave the tip of Bush's shoe a playful tap.
It seemed as if they had discovered a kind of warmth and courtesy -- enough, in any case, to enable them to discuss difficult international issues. French President Sarkozy reported that he had explained to Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a "peaceful conversation," his views on Russia's treatment of Chechens, journalists and homosexuals. It was one of many conversations that would have been interesting to witness.
Before the summit, some had voiced doubts whether such a huge event was even worthwhile. In retrospect, it seems clear that it produced a sufficient number of intimate moments to create at least some sense of unity. It is no secret among summit officials that politicians are always the ones willing to make concessions and compromises. It's good that they meet now and then.
But the Big Eight's relationship with the rest of the world is another issue altogether. The group had made every effort not to seem exclusive. Africa was represented, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon flew in, and a conversion participants hope to establish as the "Heiligendamm Process" was begun with emerging nations Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.
There was also, though, something presumptuous about the whole thing -- a presumption that a country like China will hardly put up with for long. The appearance of Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who turned 81 a few days ago, highlighted how difficult it is to attempt to think and make decisions for others. Wade, who was there to represent Africa, was furious after meeting with the G-8 leaders, claiming that he felt poorly treated and misunderstood. When the leaders talk about Africa, he said, their main concerns are AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and they have just hinted that another $60 billion could be in the offing to fight these and other diseases.
"You have a faulty picture of Africa," Wade told the eight journalists who were interested in hearing what he had to say. Hundreds, by comparison, came to many of the G-8 leaders' press conferences in Heiligendamm. "You should know that Africa is not sick," Wade said. He told the handful of journalists that he is less interested in money to help cure disease than in funding for investments that can give the continent a future. Wade wants money for new roads, transportation and infrastructure. This, Wade said, is the best medicine and the true vaccine against Africa's gravest disease: poverty.
Many promises were made to the continent at the G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland in 2005, but none were kept. The attendees at this year's summit, Wade said, talked about how these old objectives could perhaps be reached after all. In other words, he said, there had been no progress at all. He shook his head and left.
But Merkel was sufficiently glib not to allow Wade's words to go unnoticed. At her closing press conference, she discussed his criticism and announced improvements. Merkel also discussed her disappointments at this final press conference. The closing statement contains only non-binding language about a future code of conduct for the controversial investment companies known as hedge funds. The United States and Great Britain, where most hedge funds are headquartered, managed to successfully fend off Merkel's attack.
But Merkel also has no plans to simply sit back and accept this minor defeat. She plans to take up the issue once again during the second half of her G-8 presidency. She will meet with hedge fund industry leaders in the coming weeks to try and convince them of the advantages of a code of conduct.
By No Means Evil
On the whole, the politicians assembled in Heiligendamm gave the world little reason to assume, as usual, the worst of them. Their big issues were the environment and Africa, issues that also meant a lot to the protestors on the other side of the security fence. Their resolutions were far from perfect, but by no means were they evil.
In any case, when it comes to the climate, everyone shapes global events, not just politicians. The decisions of every individual affect global warming. On one large banner, Greenpeace suggested that the leaders of the G-8 nations "Act Now." But the politicians would have an easier job of it if everyone took this message to heart.
In truth, people have a tendency to hold their often verbally abused politicians accountable when it comes to issues like climate change. One of those politicians is German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel.
The task he and his counterparts from many other countries now face is to ensure that the Heiligendamm resolution is turned into a concept. Gabriel already has an idea on how to make that happen. He proposes that the German government enact climate protection acceleration legislation, an umbrella law that would cover everything that speeds up climate protection. This would increase massive development of the technology known as cogeneration, increased funding for renewable forms of energy and new standards for building renovation and all types of electronic devices.
Gabriel would like to take his ideas to the UN climate conference in Bali this December, where the good intentions of Heiligendamm are to be cast into concrete measures. "Until now," says Gabriel, "we didn't have a framework." Now, though, it will be a test as to whether the world government will be able to govern.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan