Sometimes the G8 summit is denounced as merely an expensive photo op with presidential men in suits. This was the recurring question that I posed throughout a very busy day- is there substance to these meetings?
One conclusion I came to is that the peripheral G8 events provide a significant forum for public discussion. For example, two Canadian cabinet ministers, Susan Whelan and Bill Graham participated in the final event of the G6B, the alternative summit devoted to critical discussion of the G8. The public audience they faced was suspicious yet also patient as they responded to the grievances and suggestions summarized at 'the people's summit'. When speakers proposed moderate changes to government policy, Graham and Whelan appeared to embrace their suggestions. When more drastic measures were put on the table, such as the complete abolition of all international financial institutions, Graham bravely called that idea unrealistic.
Similarly, a morning press conference with James Orbinski of Médecins Sans Frontières showed how the G8 has become a valuable forum for non- governmental input. Intentionally or otherwise, the concentration of the international media in one place to monitor the meeting of international leaders provides a massive public relations opportunity for NGOs. Dr. Orbinski spoke in a statistical language that had a simple conclusion; Africa is suffering from a massive public health crisis and needs increased funding for health initiatives and increased access to expensive medications.
However I would be wrong to suggest that the arrival of President Bush on the airport tarmac was not a highlight of my day. I expected to be indifferent; George Bush's brand of politics has often troubled me and it never struck me that I would want to see him in person. But I was like all of the other commoners waiting under the hot sun for the Emperor's arrival. The Presidential Air Force One, the awaiting White House shuttle helicopters, and the plethora of secret service were utterly majestic. Independent of whether you like the United States or its President, I would wager that anyone -even critics of the current global order- would be awed by the spectacle I saw at the airport today. The relatively modest security and procedure associated with the arrival of the French, British and other heads of state were equally apparent.
Today I saw substance and I saw performance. The G8 Summit is an opportunity for citizens to critique the foreign policy of the world's powerful leaders but I found out first hand that the photo opportunities are unforgettable too.