When The Circus Comes To Town

Revelers cool off in water being thrown from a balcony during the San Fermin fiestas in Pamplona, northern Spain, Friday, July 6, 2007. The fiestas 'Los San Fermines' held since 1591 and made famous by American writer Earnest Hemmingway, attract tens of thousands of foreign visitors each year for nine days of revelry, morning bull-runs and afternoon bullfights.
Commentary on the G8 by CBS News Correspondent Tom Fenton.
The annual economic summit of the world’s richest nations has become a carnival.

This year’s G8 meeting in Genoa – a picturesque, crowded, old city totally inappropriate for such a meeting – is a circus complete with clowns. The thousands of anarchists and assorted demonstrators who have descended on poor old Genoa beat anything P. T. Barnum could have dreamed up.

The demonstrators are there because for a few days, Genoa is the best stage in the world to show off your anti-globalization credentials, a neat place to hang out with like-minded kids who have nothing better to do in summer, and a great way to impress your stick-in-the-mud friends when you get back home.

But it’s less clear why the heads of government are there.

American presidents travel to these summits at huge public expense, with a retinue of camp followers that would do justice to a Roman emperor. And by the time you add the thousands of advisers and media for the seven other heads of government, you would think that something monumental is going to happen in Genoa.

The fact is that these summits rarely produce anything of importance, except photo calls, reams of press copy that few people read, and, of course, the demonstrations that make great television.

Originally, the economic summits were a way for heads of government to get together and informally swap ideas. They could cut through red tape and bureaucracy and get things done that could not be done through normal channels. Now the summits have become mountains of red tape and bureaucracy and get very little done.

The first summit, in 1975 at the French government chateau of Rambouillet, was supposed to be a one-time meeting to coordinate national economic plans at a time of world recession and an oil crisis. It was a small affair with only heads of government and their finance and foreign ministers. The French did not even want note-takers present, although the United States insisted on having one. In this informal atmosphere, the leaders agreed to reflate their economies.

The first summit was such a success that annual meetings have been held ever since, even though it they very quickly grew too big to accomplish anything.

This year’s summit is no exception. As always, the communiques are written in advance. They are a synthesis of the lowest common denominators of conflicting national interests, offend no one and accomplish nothing. On the rare occasions when the leaders actually take a strong stand on an issue, they usually go home and ignore their high-sounding pledges.

So why are these huge stage-managed events still held? Momentum, perhaps. No one wants to walk out of the world’s most prestigious meetings, and no one wants to admit that they are a waste of time.

But if the loonies and do-gooders and party-party demonstrators that now swarm to these summits ever scceed in putting them out of business, they might even be doing the world a favor.

Written by Tom Fenton.
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