As President Obama’s friendly press has politely revealed, there’s a lot of mumble-mumble attending the new promise of the G-8 nations to shower $40 billion in economic aid on the “emerging Arab democracies.”
To get to $40 billion, the G-8 summit staffers had to add together three separate mumble-mumbles: a pledge to make $20 billion available through international development banks to “aid…economic transitions”; $10 billion in bilateral (country-to-country) aid from individual G-8 members; and another $10 billion offered by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar (which are not, technically, members of the G-8).
And as the Wall Street Journal puts it, “the G-8’s official declaration avoided giving details about how much new aid individual countries were willing to commit to the region.” Instead, the G-8 “kick[ed] many key decisions about financial support to later in the year.” Its leaders did not, however, neglect to “welcome support from other bilateral partners, including from the region.”
So, basically, the G-8 pledged very little, if anything, that it can actually be held to at a later date. This is probably wise, given that the G-8 nations are plagued by their own economic problems and literally do not have even the $10 billion mumbled about in bilateral aid. They’d have to borrow it.
Many pundits noticed that the summiteers ignored the Eurozone’s woes, an oversight that puts in an interesting light their posturing on Libya and other topics. Germany – a (relatively) solvent G-8 member – will have her hands full bailing out Greece, Portugal, and Spain, let alone “emerging Arab democracies.”
President Obama attended the summit representing a nation with no federal budget and a national debt soaring past $14 trillion, his Treasury secretary warning that debt servicing or government functions will have to be suspended in August if Congress can’t come to an agreement. Japan is still staggering from the March earthquake and nuclear plant meltdown; Russia is a chronic, commodities-dependent basket case. Britain, France, and Italy are frantically “streamlining” public services and defense procurement spending as their entitlement and military operations costs mount. It takes this company to make Canada look vibrant and well-run by comparison.
If any actual money is forthcoming from the “$40 billion” pledge, observers can be pardoned for guessing it will be the $10 billion from the Gulf nations (and will not go to what Westerners would recognize as the economic promotion of democracy). There is more than a whiff of a decadent self-deception in the magniloquent G-8 gesture; the Western leaders, in particular, come off like once-rich, now overextended aristocrats trading on family names and state pensions to stay on the geopolitical A-list.
Which is not actually a problem, aid-to-emerging-Arab-democracies-wise, because, conveniently enough, no emerging Arab democracies – outside of Iraq – are identifiable yet. The Arab Spring has resulted so far in a series of bloody crackdowns, one full-scale civil war, and two nations (Tunisia and Egypt) under new but non-elected, still-autocratic government. We can certainly hope that both Tunisia and Egypt will hold the elections promised to the people. Whether those elections will produce self-sustaining consensual polities, with liberal ideals and peaceful changes of government, is another question.
There is no reason to hope that “economic aid” will promote this outcome. Economic aid given for precisely the purpose of promoting liberalism and democracy has a long history; the liberal developed world has been shoveling such aid at the less-developed world since the 1950s, and its track record is poor. Without a prior commitment to the rule of law and government transparency in the recipient nations, such funds are frequently misappropriated. In fact, “economic aid” provided by illiberal investors (China, Russia, Saudi Arabia) is more likely to go to the purposes intended by the donors, because those donors are perfectly forthright about their own interests and the strings attached.
But the good news about all this is that the event described in the international media – “the G-8 pledging $40 billion to emerging Arab democracies” – is a chimera. The episode is largely an exercise in posturing and narrative-building, with the full complicity of the news media. A more accurate rendition of it would go something like this: “G-8 may borrow $10 billion more from China and co-sign at development banks to aid unspecified Arab governments; conditions, timing vague; Saudis, others make own pledge.”
It’s worth noting the disconnect here, between the daily life of the average G-8 taxpayer – full of accountability and hard realities – and the all-but-counterfactual narrative-building that characterizes many in their governments and media. The people who represent the true legacy of the West may have little voice today in the centers of power and strategic communication, but there remains an uncorrupted core, in Europe and North America and a few other outposts around the globe. History tells us we don’t have to start with more than that, to prevail in our own generation.