There is has always been a shock when the warm words of a political summit meet the cold blast of reality, as evinced by a long trail of failed, discarded or oversold Group of Eight initiatives gone by. This week it was only enhanced by the events in London. The outside world intruded horrifically on eight men parsing communiqués on a remote Scottish golf course behind a guard, ironically enough, of Metropolitan Police.
The genuine shock and sympathy that the attacks provoked among the other G8 leaders may have helped Tony Blair, the British prime minister, to achieve the form of words he wanted on trade, aid and Africa. But, as London itself gets briskly back to work, it seems all too possible that reality will jar once more with the G8’s grandiose promises.
Rarely has the disconnection between words and deeds been so obvious or so well-timed as in the G8’s commitment to freer trade. At the exact time that heads of government were agreeing on a rhetorical boost for the Doha round, their Geneva negotiators, doggedly holding to the rigidity of long-fixed positions, were threatening to stalemate it.
And, while an aid increase, in real-terms, of $50bn by 2010 would be solid progress, most of what Mr Blair fought for this week involved persuading fellow G8 leaders not to back away from previous promises. Individual pledges made under multilateral duress, or when signatories are being swept along by the momentum of a summit, have a way of coming apart once the pressure subsides. The Germans and Italians are already falling behind on the last set of aid pledges they were browbeaten into making in the name of European unity at the previous great leap forward, the United Nations conference in Monterrey in 2002.
The further that G8 promises are pushed into the future, the less they are likely to bind. By 2010, when the aid pledge is due to be fulfilled, Messrs Blair, Bush and Koizumi will be out of office, barring the mother of all broken promises and a change in the US constitution. Nor would I bet 0.7 per cent of my own income on Mr Schröder, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Chirac being around. It is hard to visualise US congressional appropriations committees in 2009, sitting down amid a fiscal crisis in the first year of the McCain or Clinton administration, solemnly consulting the Gleneagles communiqué pasted to the wall and deciding to slash the Pentagon budget rather than aid.
This is a pity. There is always a risk that increased aid will fail to achieve its aims, because of corruption, mismanagement or simply the wrong diagnosis for the problem. But it is equally possible that rich-world taxpayers, believing the spin, will become disillusioned with aid that was promised but never arrived. The biggest concern is this: the hyping of the summit as an event continues to put the onus of saving Africa on the G8. It belongs , ratherprimarily on the continent itself. The biggest gap remains between what Africa and its leaders promise and what they have delivered. We heard too little about that this week.