EXPECTATIONS for what could be achieved at last week's Group of Eight summit in Scotland were too high, as they often are. A three-day meeting between the leaders of the richest Western economies and Japan, plus Russia, is never a substitute for the years of negotiation that are needed to bring about major changes to international aid or environmental policy. Worse, whatever momentum the meeting might have achieved was destroyed by the bomb attacks in London on Thursday.
Nevertheless, some agreements were reached. Of the two issues on the agenda, African poverty attracted the most consensus. The British prime minister and summit president, Tony Blair, persuaded his colleagues to double their aid to Africa by 2010 and to contribute up to $3 billion a year for the next three years to the Palestinians as well. If, when all of the fine print is revealed, this proves to be new money and not merely aid already promised, these are substantial figures. Still, on the issues that are, in the long run, even more important to the improvement of African economies -- the elimination of Western agricultural export subsidies that make it impossible for farmers in developing countries to compete, and the cancellation of African debt -- the leaders only agreed to agree. The real test of the eight leaders' commitment to finding a permanent solution to African poverty will come over time. Are they willing to fight domestic political opposition from their own farmers? Both President Bush and Mr. Blair claim they are, but the proof will be in the achievement, not the promise.
On climate change, the eight did not reach consensus. But the final G-8 statement was more interesting than many of the activists in Scotland were willing to acknowledge. For one, Mr. Bush consented to a communique declaring that human activity is largely responsible for the greenhouse gases that lead to global warming, something his administration has not always been willing to concede. More important, the leaders agreed that any accord on global warming must include "major emerging economies," meaning China, India and other developing countries where production of greenhouse gases is expected to increase rapidly over the next few years. This is an important recognition of reality on the part of the Europeans who support the Kyoto Protocol on global warming: Without the inclusion of developing economies, mandatory greenhouse gas controls could simply hamper Western growth without having much environmental impact. But because the administration has neither put forward a true alternative to Kyoto nor proposed a meaningful domestic alternative to ever-higher fossil fuel consumption, the rest of the communique, including calls for measures to increase energy efficiency and the use of cleaner fuels, had little value.
In the end, the most important function of G-8 meetings is not their precise agreements but their power to focus international attention on particular problems. In this sense, the meeting was only a partial success. Mr. Blair had hoped to draw the world's gaze away from the war on terrorism and toward the global problems of poverty and climate change. Until Thursday, he looked like he was succeeding (in part with the help of a slew of rock stars), and he did draw more attention to African issues than anyone had in a long time. But in the wake of the London bombings, Western leaders are more likely, and rightly, to intensify their focus on terrorism once again.