The spectacle of the G-8 leaders in the bucolic verdure of Camp David, as they were strutting in their leisure attire capped by prudent sweaters against any non-fiscal Catoctin chill for photo-ops for those at home, could momentarily disguise what an appalling mess all the G-8 countries except Germany and Canada have made of the art of government. Not all the leaders who attended are equally blameworthy, of course. The French and Japanese leaders are new. Some — Mario Monti (of Italy) and David Cameron (of the U.K.) — have lightly ameliorated the desperate conditions they inherited; and some — Angela Merkel (of Germany), and Stephen Harper (of Canada) — inherited advantageous conditions and have steadfastly reinforced them, have been reelected and probably will be again. As a group, they are an interesting kaleidoscope of leaders of great nations toiling for their own political well-being and for the welfare of their 900 million people, in eight of the twelve largest national economies (Brazil, China, India, and Spain are missing, and would bring the population represented to over 3.5 billion — a majority of the world). They are like a cutaway drawing of Santa’s workshop, with each elf banging away in some purposeful task, yet conveying a slightly comical, portentous busyness.
At least this confected casualness is preferable to the former, ostentatious fun of the summiteer: speeding limousines hurtling to a stop as if conveying bank robbers transferring to escape helicopters, as well-upholstered and accoutered men debouch from their cars and bustlingly wrestle bulging briefcases up the conference-building steps for the evident benefit of all mankind. For all history up to the end of the Cold War, summit meetings were historic and dramatic occasions, when leaders who controlled the destiny of much of the world met to change the world. Thus it was with Pope (Saint) Leo and Attila the Hun in 452; Henry VIII and François I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520; Napoleon and Alexander on the raft at Tilsit in 1807; Metternich and the heads of the Great Powers at Vienna in 1814–15; Bismarck and the Powers at Berlin in 1878; Clemenceau, Wilson, and Lloyd George at Versailles in 1918–19; Hitler, Chamberlain, and the others at Munich in 1938; Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Tehran in 1943 and Yalta in 1945; and the post-war summit meetings from Potsdam through to the dramatic Reagan-Gorbachev meetings in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington, and Moscow. Hugely important decisions, many of them disastrous and some dishonorable, were made at those earlier meetings. The previous meetings at Camp David, between Churchill and Roosevelt in 1943, and between Eisenhower and Khrushchev in 1959, were necessary and at least discussed serious subjects.
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