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Americas Summit: Progress or Photo-op?

April 15, 2001|Richard Feinberg | Richard Feinberg, a professor in the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego, is co-director, with Robin Rosenberg, of the Leadership Council for Inter-American Summitry

SAN DIEGO — The third Summit of the Americas, set for next weekend in Quebec City, comes at a time of rising tensions between Washington and other world powers. Critics have accused President George W. Bush's foreign policy team of unilateral posturing and of returning to an outmoded, military-oriented mind-set. The Americas summit will offer Bush an opportunity to demonstrate that he can work cooperatively with foreign leaders on a range of political and economic issues.

Most other leaders in the Western Hemisphere appear ready to engage him. All represent democratically elected governments, and most see hemispheric economic integration as a path toward mutual prosperity.

Yet, are such summits little more than choreographed photo-ops churning out lofty diplomatic declarations signifying nothing?

The outcomes of the first two summits--Miami in 1994 and Santiago, Chile, in 1998--are mixed, but it would be wrong to dismiss them as hollow exercises.

For example, at both Miami and Santiago, hemispheric leaders pledged to defend each other and their democratic institutions against military coups or other authoritarian threats. They made good on their pledges when democracy was threatened in Paraguay, Ecuador and, most recently, in Peru. The leaders insisted that authoritarians yield and democracy be honored.

The two previous summits also launched the great experiment of what could become the world's largest free-trade area. Six years of negotiations have produced the first draft of a trade treaty. The prospective trade area would remove barriers to commerce and capital flows from Alaska to Argentina, creating an integrated economic zone with potentially more than 800 million consumers and $13 trillion in gross annual product. Many controversial issues hang in the balance, but negotiators are making progress toward completing their task by 2005.

Yet, too much was promised in both Miami and Santiago. The number of action items approved at the summits exceeded 300. Countries simply lack the instruments and resources to tackle such an unrealistically ambitious agenda. The gap between promises and follow-up has created a crisis of credibility.

Among the biggest summit failures is the lack of progress on the centerpiece of the Santiago gathering--the pledge to rapidly improve universal access to quality education. Many initiatives to safeguard the environment have languished on the shelf as well.

For Bush and his 33 counterparts to succeed in Quebec City, they should focus on a more limited number of goals. Here is a list of seven practical ones:

* The Quebec City summit should accelerate negotiations to wrap up the free-trade accord. Leaders should pledge that they are prepared to pay the political price to win support at home for hemispheric economic integration.

* A strong democracy clause limiting participation in future summits and in any free-trade accord to nations governed democratically should be adopted. Such a clause would be a powerful deterrent to politicians who might contemplate authoritarian rule, even for a brief interim.

* The anti-drug-trafficking mechanism agreed to at previous summits should be strengthened. For example, country reports tracking progress should be standardized and include baseline measurements and quantifiable objectives.

* Specific clauses in the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, which, was adopted at previous summits and, for example, makes bribery in international transactions illegal, should be highlighted and then implemented. Technical assistance to needy countries should be offered, and compliance monitored.

* Hemispheric leaders should strive to further empower women. Happily, women have made significant gains in the region over the past decade, but more is needed to promote gender equality.

* A $100-million fund should be established to ensure that summit promises can become concrete deeds. The money can come from existing resources languishing in multilateral development banks.

* To assure that the promises made in Quebec City are not quickly forgotten, an efficient, representative management structure should be created to monitor implementation of key summit mandates.

Even if hemispheric leaders agree upon such a robust agenda, there remains the danger that the media's attention in Quebec City will be distracted by noisy, possibly violent protests against globalization, such as those that disrupted Seattle during the World Trade Organization's meeting. The best response to such demonstrations would be an invitation to legitimate protesters to participate in the summit meetings. The protesters could see firsthand that the leaders are not faceless bureaucrats or autocrats but are democratically elected individuals wrestling with their same concerns: how to make globalization work better for the majority of the people.

Rather than simply questioning the motives of hemispheric governments, citizens' groups should exhort summit leaders to make good on their promises on issues such as labor rights, anti-corruption and education. In Quebec City, there should be neither the perception nor the reality of a wide breech between "the people" and their elected leaders. *

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