Amid the Ruins, the G-8 Was Not a Shambles

In the end, the Italians’ legendary talent for snatching success out of impending disaster won the day, and the G-8 summit in the quake stricken town of l’Aquila this week was “a tour de force of last-minute organization,” as the New York Times called it.

There was no major breakthrough on any of the main problems confronting world leaders. But there was a useful clearing of the air on such issues as global warming, as well as a burst of generosity by “have” nations towards struggling economies in the developing world and welcome help for agricultural development. Above all, the dire predictions of chaos amid the central Italian mountains of the Abruzzo went unfulfilled.

The meeting may well be the swan song of the G-8 structure, which former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi called on Friday “a tired formula which does not fit the reality of a world that has changed.” Indeed, the unofficial label of the l’Aquila meeting as the G8+5+1+5 looked more like a mathematical formula than a meeting of world leaders. But it foreshadowed a different kind of conference with broader global representation to include new economic giants like China, Brazil, and India.

On the margin of the talks, there was more than the usual amount of theater, as the leaders toured the devastation left behind by the April 6 earthquake that killed almost 300 townspeople and left 40,000 homeless. Italians who were hoping the exposure of world leaders to the ruins would result in more international help got their wish. Chancellor Angela Merkel promised more German aid, the United States said it would support reconstruction of the destroyed university, and President Nicolas Sarkozy has put his Italian wife, Carla Bruni, in charge of supervising French aid to restore the historic main church.

Oddities abound in such meetings, and the l’Aquila summit had its share. The Italians were miffed about the White House briefing papers for officials and the American media: Biographies for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Chinese President Ju Hintao ran for two full pages, that of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spanned two-and-a-half, while Prime Minister Berlusconi, the summit host, got seven lines.

Only U.S. journalists were admitted to President Obama’s solo press conference, apparently for security reasons. Some European reporters resented being labeled unsafe.

And the summit image that has dominated internet coverage is the one of Obama apparently staring at the back of a young girl, with Sarkozy watching him with an “oh la la” grin. The girl was 16-year-old Brazilian student Mayora Tavares, a delegate to the “Junior G-8.” Subsequent video revealed a more benign gesture on the U.S. president’s part.

The Italian newspaper, La Repubblica — no friend of Berlusconi — grudgingly admitted that the theatrical and unpredictable prime minister had turned out to be “an excellent political host.” But in the background, skirmishing between Berlusconi and the Italian press continued, though it went largely unnoticed by other delegations.

When it seemed that the summit organization would function more or less smoothly, Berlusconi taunted Italian reporters: “Well, you didn’t get the result you wanted.” At his first press conference Tuesday, Berlusconi spoke of the G-8 agenda, then cut off inquires about his alleged relationship with paid escorts by asking “Any questions?” without making microphones available for the reporters.

Among the leaders present, Obama unquestionably drew the largest crowds. But they paled compared to the numbers that thronged visiting movie stars George Clooney and Bill Murray. How they fit into the G8 was never fully explained.