St Petersburg and Evian: Steps Towards Reconciliation

More than forty heads of state and government will be smiling and shaking each other's hands at the end of this week during festivities dedicated to the 300th anniversary of the St Petersburg. Later on, eight leaders will be as amiably exchanging greetings in the French resort town of Evian, where another summit of the Group of Eight will be held on June 1-3, as the world's leading industrialised countries call themselves.

But a friendly facade conceals inner tensions. These will be the first personal contacts between leaders of countries whose relations found themselves heavily poisoned by the Iraq war. Moreover, if mutual dislike in St Petersburg may appear to be dissolved in a holiday atmosphere, in Evian leaders of the war and anti-war coalitions will for the first time find themselves in a narrow circle.

Out of the G-8 member-countries, it was Russia, France, Germany and Canada that came out against a US attack on Iraq, while Britain, Italy, and Japan either took direct part in military operations, or backed them politically or financially.

The fact that the two summits, an informal one in St Petersburg and the "closed club" one in Evian, will follow the almost unanimous vote at the UN Security Council for lifting economic sanctions against Iraq, does little to change anything. The resolution reflects the tendency of the Old Europe, including in this case Russia, towards pragmatism, rather than all-forgiveness.

The three-way entente of Moscow, Paris and Bonn is refusing to see in this Security Council document what Washington and London see in it, namely an act giving the cloak of legitimacy to the Iraqi military campaign. But none of the capitals that oppose the war regrets that the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed. And none of them saw the restoration of Iraq without scrapping sanctions, an influential role of the UN in that process, and preservation of their Iraqi business and financial interests in the post-war period. Which was recorded, to mutual satisfaction, in the compromise resolution of the Security Council.

But the current unanimity on the problem of restoring Iraq is not balanced out by the Old Europe's deep frustration with America's dominating role in the unattractive and threatening form in which it showed itself in the Iraqi military drive.

Thinking European leaders realise with alarm: "a concert of powers", which Harold Wilson said once underlined trans-Atlantic institutions like NATO is gradually giving way to an American solo. America does not seem to know where to use its might. Hence its inclination to act unilaterally, often because it can afford to. And more often because this reflects the fundamental doctrine of George W. Bush's neo-conservative entourage.

It is, essentially, as they say there, "to proceed from national interests, and not the interests of some phantom international community." As a result, the preventive wars of the US in Afghanistan and Iraq are seen from outside not so much blows to terrorism, as rather first stones for the foundations of a global American empire.

The film Matrix is nothing. What is worrying, would not the development of totalitarian tendencies in present US policy lead to the whole world put into a kind of American matrix? A threat of using armadas of aircraft carriers, of compact-sized nuclear mini-warheads and Stealth bombers may become for the all-powerful US a real surrogate for that fantastic computer programme which can govern man. It is these far-reaching fears that are discernible behind the Old Europe's rejection of the US aggressive behaviour in the Iraq episode.

On the other hand, Washington, to judge by everything, is not inclined either to absolve the sins of the European countries that it considers guilty. So the question remains if there is going to be a one-on-one meeting in Evian between George Bush and summit host Jacques Chirac.

A jarring note was also struck by an interview given by Condoleezza Rice to the German magazine Fokus. The US presidential security adviser claims that relations between Bush and Gerhard Schroeder "are hopelessly soured." Washington, she said, intends to deal with Germany "bypassing" the chancellor. Nor does German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer suit Rice. His past background - in the 60s he was known as a left-wing radical and a "Green" activist - does not "match" what she describes as the status of a foreign minister.

Despite the consolatory UN resolution the White House clearly continues to feel apprehensive of France and Germany as European countries that are beginning to insist on curbing American superiority.

As a result, the Group of Eight will arrive in Evian in a far from festive mood in which most of these leaders will attend the celebrations in St Petersburg. But the scale and keenness of issues that will be put on the agenda of G-8 leaders require not just a prompt restoration of mutual understanding upset by the war in Iraq.

The club of the most influential powers is called upon to confirm in Evian that its members have more common interests than discrepancies. Today, reconciliation benefits all.

By tradition, Group of Eight members will make a review of a voluminous list of key political and global problems, including non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the struggle against terrorism, post-war restoration of Iraq, the Middle East knot complete with the road map, the nuclear programme situation in North Korea, today's situation in Afghanistan, Indo-Pakistani relations, and much else.

All these items on the agenda share one common feature: success in deciding them is directly proportional to how well the G-8 manages to conceptualise itself - despite the Iraqi wrangle - as a single collective body with common tasks. All the more so since America's stake exclusively on its own might proved to be weak on many counts.

Say, the victories won by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq failed to root out Al-Qaeda, to send Osama bin Laden to push up the daisies, but only fragmented the terrorist international into regional groups.

To fight such scattered combat groups Washington needs more than ever before information from all quarters - from Saudi Arabia and Chechnya, from Germany and the Philippines. There is an acute need for beefing up the anti-terrorist potential in third countries.

Meanwhile, Washington is still resisting an exchange of data even with France and Germany, allies that lost their credibility in its eyes.

A similar situation is to be seen with opposing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Washington's attempts to deal with the sprawling of WMD by force only galvanises the weaker countries' striving to acquire a nuclear shield at any cost. Otherwise, the US would treat us as it did Iraq, capitals from Tehran to Pyongyang fear, and with reason.

Instead of branding countries as "rogue" it is necessary to involve them in an ever widening system of international treaties and to help create an inter-state structure making it impossible for a terrorist with a nuclear charge in his backpack to take a hiding - this is the effective way.

Incidentally, unlike Washington, terrorists attach prime importance to the existence of the international community. It was not accidental that bin Laden declared a jihad not only against America, but also against "the infamous United Nations." The hatred of Islamic fundamentalists towards the West can only be felt in the context of expansion of the part of mankind that preaches the ideals of democracy, which is tantamount to "stagnation", according to their views.

Against this backdrop, Evian would go down in the history of Group of Eight summits if in one form or another, and best of all in practical deeds, it showed the US leadership's conceptual acknowledgement of the obvious: yes, we are part of the international community. The strongest part, but among countries equal to us in human dignity.

Vladimir Simonov, RIAN

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Author`s name Petr Ermilin