The G8: From Trieste to L’Aquila

Federiga Bindi
Federiga Bindi Former Brookings Expert

July 3, 2009

In advance of the G8 summit in L’Aquila next week, G8 foreign ministers met in Trieste on June 25 through June 27 – arguably a less glamorous meeting but a productive one in many respects.

First, much can be learned from the Trieste meeting’s format. As many wonder what size “G” would best suit the future of global governance, Trieste was organized in concentric circles. It kicked off with a dinner for the G8 ministers (plus the EU representatives) and ended up with some 60 delegations – between states and IIOOs’ representatives – two days later. Trieste showed how – if on the one hand there is a need for greater inclusiveness and representativeness – as the table enlarges, speeches become more and more ceremonial. Hence, the G8 still has good reasons to exist and the thematic approach proposed by the Italian Foreign Ministry (“the issue shall dictate the format and not vice versa”) appears to be a pragmatic, sensible solution.

Trieste also mattered from a thematic point of view, in particular with respect to three unsolved problems: Afghanistan, Iran, and nuclear proliferation.

Afghanistan was at the very heart of the Trieste meeting. Ever since he was named Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs in late May 2008, Franco Frattini claimed that in order to (try to) win in Afghanistan, there was a need to think and act regionally. While the major element of distinction in the new U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan is the focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or “Af-Pak”– a term hated by the Pakistanis and a source of many tensions – Frattini claimed that all the regional actors needed to be involved: neighboring countries, former neighbors, Gulf states etc, with Iran at the top of this list. Indeed Iran is interested in Afghanistan. Not only as relevant actor in Afghanistan’s drug crisis (significant amounts of opium are trafficked through Iranian territory and even stays within Iran), but there is a widespread hatred of the Taliban among many Iranians due to religious differences (Sunni vs. Shia).

While Frattini attempted unsuccessfully to travel to Teheran last spring, it was in response to his activism that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for The Hague meeting held on March 30. Yet, whereas The Hague meeting was essentially a declaratory show, Trieste was conceived as a pragmatic and operative meeting. The driving idea was to foster cooperation among the different parties wielding influence within Afghanistan, many of which are currently operating in a rather schizophrenic way. Kai Eide’s satisfaction with the meeting was tangible proof that the exercise was successful. True, there was no hand shake between Clinton and Manouchehr Mottaki – due to a broken arm and the post election situation in Iran – but it is doubtful whether this photo opportunity would ever have really materialized.

One hand shake that did make news, however, was that between Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the new Indian Foreign Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna, the first since the Mumbai attacks. The rather confrontational Indo-Pakistani relationship seems to be gradually evolving for the best. The Pakistanis have finally come to terms with the fact that a massive army presence on the Indian border means a weak Afghanistan border, and Pakistani public opinion has been reported to be finally supporting the government’s offensive against the Taliban.

At Trieste, one of the most difficult exercises was to foster consensus among the Eight on the Final Declaration’s paragraph on Iran. On the one hand, there was a need to support the reformists’ efforts – a principle particularly dear to the French and British Foreign Ministers, Bernard Kouchner and David Miliband. On the other hand were pragmatic concerns such as those voiced by the Japanese Foreign Minister Hirofumi Nakasone who claimed that in the end Iranian President Ahmadinejad is the elected leader. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov portrayed the Iranian as “normal business” and a matter of domestic politics not be interfered with. In the middle stood the need to support President Obama’s offer for dialogue and, in the background, the striking silence of the Arab League and of the Arab states in general, too worried that the democratic virus could spread to their own countries. Mission almost impossible, yet achieved with a savvy mix of “we fully respect the sovereignty of Iran” while condemning the violence and expressing solidarity with those who suffered at the hands of the state.

Last but not least is the issue of nuclear proliferation. Obama’s “Zero Option” a dividing issue among Europeans, with the French against it essentially for domestic reasons and the Germans fully supporting it. Despite the political directors’ best efforts, the final text arrived at the Ministers’ table “in brackets”. The final solution was offered by the U.S. State Department’s Political Director Bill Burns who managed to get consensus on the phrase “we are all committed to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, in accordance to the goals of the NPT”.

This leads us to the final point. In order for the future of global governance to be effectively reformed, EU representation needs to change. Three EU representatives at the table were useless and ineffective. The Europeans need to decide what they want to bring to the table and how to act as grownups, if they want to be grownups at all. At the same time, if the Obama administration is really convinced, as it seems, that a united EU is in the US interest, it should act accordingly and support European efforts to speak with a single voice and not add fuel to the fire by weighing in on divisive domestic issues such as Turkey’s membership into the EU.