Cast your eye over the G8 beauty parade pictures from Germany. Now get a marker pen and put a big black line through the faces of the following leaders: Tony Blair, George Bush and Vladimir Putin.
Why? Because this time next year, two of them will have gone, and the third will be well on his way to the door marked Exit. Mr Blair takes his final bow in three weeks’ time; President Putin stands down after the Russian presidential election next March (at least, that’s what the constitution says he should do … there are those who wonder if he might be tempted to hang around a bit longer); and in a year from now President Bush will be in the final months of his eight-year stint in the White House.
Which leads me to wonder who the real global leaders are these days. Angela Merkel of Germany seems to have done wonders for her reputation while steering both the EU and the G8, and in France Nicolas Sarkozy can’t wait to get started. And although he’s not a member of the G8 – and even though you probably wouldn’t recognise him if he passed you in the street – don’t forget President Hu Jintao of China.
And my point is? Well, simply this: things change. Leaders change. National interests might not change, but the way political leaders interpret them does – and that means that the coming couple of years are more than unusually uncertain.
Suppose in early 2009, President Barack Obama of the US meets President Sergei Ivanov of Russia. Suppose later this year Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the UK meets Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany (a rather more likely scenario, I grant you, than the Obama-Ivanov one). Will they get on? Will they trust each other? We don’t know … and that’s my point.
As for G8 summits themselves, I confess that I have very mixed feelings. Do we really need all these world leaders to jet off every year to some isolated resort, accompanied by the inevitable battalions of officials and security people, so that they can simply sign a document that has been painstakingly negotiated by their officials over several months?
Or are they right to argue that only when they all sit down together – and more importantly, when they break off for their “unilaterals” (when two leaders meet in private somewhere) – can they do the really difficult deals? Perhaps they just like the feeling that there are some things only the top people can do.
Would the Gleneagles promises on helping Africa have been made two years ago if there hadn’t been a Gleneagles? In theory, there’s no reason why not – after all governments can use email too – but in practice, those promises weren’t made without the artificially-imposed deadline of an impending G8 summit. So on balance, yes, I suppose the summits do serve a purpose.
It’s nearly 13 weeks now – that’s 91 days -- since our colleague Alan Johnston was kidnapped in Gaza – and there’s been no word since the release of that video a week ago. Might his captors reckon that 100 days is long enough? We can but hope …