The Germans may be known for their efficiency and organization, but both qualities failed them completely as the G8 summit they are hosting this week kicked off. As the world's leaders gathered at the Baltic Sea resort of Heiligendamm on Wednesday, a few well-organized protesters managed to disrupt almost all modes of transport around the summit.
First the anti-capitalist protesters played a game of cat-and-mouse on the roads. They ran through the fields and woods around the summit, stringing tape across highways. Then they parked their cars in the roads. Finally they just sat in the roadways, as the German police stood by and watched.
Then activists launched a surprise attack on the most ridiculous part of the summit's logistics: a steam train connecting the media center to the G8 site. For some reason, German security wasn't familiar with the long oeuvre of "Tom and Jerry." So when the protesters lay on the track, they trains came to a halt.
The solution? A small flotilla of German navy boats on the Baltic Sea. Government officials and journalists bobbed up and down on the high seas for an hour as German commandos escorted them between creaky wooden piers.
For a meeting of the world's most powerful nations, this was not exactly a projection of power. Especially when the protesters even managed to shut down the harbor and the boat service stopped altogether. One frustrated Canadian official stepped off a boat to hear that the demonstrators had blocked the roads nearby. "Back to the boats!" cried one of his assistants, only half-joking.
There are several reasons why this G8 summit will fail to achieve anything substantive, and logistics are only part of the explanation. The screwball organization points to a bigger problem: under Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit has set unrealistic goals that were doomed to fail.
Most notably, Merkel set explicit targets to limit global warming without lining up the agreement of one of her closest allies: President George W. Bush. There's nothing wrong with setting goals to try to limit the worst effects of climate change. But in terms of diplomacy, there's everything wrong with a public announcement before the private work is close to an end.
Bush told reporters on Wednesday he had no intention of budging from his position, as detailed last week, that he would only agree to begin a new round of talks to specify new targets in 18 months. Bush was asked if he would give any ground on Merkel's target of limiting the rise in temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius over the century. "No, I talked about what I'm for," he said. "Remember? I said I'm for sitting together with the nations to sit down and discuss a way forward."
Climate change may be the most pressing problem facing all the leaders at the summit. But the more personal challenge is how to deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The site of the summit is located in what used to be communist East Germany, and Russia has rattled Europe with its threatening approach to its former sphere of influence.
In the days leading up to the summit, Putin gave a series of interviews in which he threatened to aim his missiles at targets in the Czech Republic and Poland if they agreed to take part in Bush's new missile-defense system. The president just happens to have visited the Czech capital before arriving at the G8, and he stops in Poland just after the summit.
Bush's reaction to Putin's aggressive rhetoric was to dismiss it out of hand—a stark contrast to his approach to the aggressive rhetoric coming out of Iran. "I don't think Vladimir Putin intends to attack Russia—I mean, Europe," he told reporters on Wednesday. "By the way, a missile-defense system that is deployed in Europe can handle one or two rocket launchers. It can't handle a multiple launch regime. Russia has got an inventory that could overpower any missile-defense system. The practicality is that this is aimed at a country like Iran, if they ended up with a nuclear weapon, so that they couldn't blackmail the free world."
President Bush has long believed that he could serve as some kind of mentor to Putin, guiding him towards good government and a secure place at the table of international leaders. But seven years into Putin's tuition, it's time to concede that either the student doesn't want to learn, or the teacher was misguided.
For his part, Bush seemed to have far more enthusiasm to meet a world leader of an entirely different nature—someone who can credibly claim to have nudged the politicians in a different direction. As he was standing beside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Bush glimpsed the rock star Bono striding across the garden outside the summit's luxury hotel rooms. By the time Abe had finished talking, Bono was gone. Bush would have to wait several hours for his allotted time with the U2 singer who has led efforts on debt cancellation in Africa. So he sent a message via two White House officials. "Bono for president!" Bush told his aides to pass onto the rock star. "Tell him I'm looking forward to seeing him!" He surely won't be that happy about his next face-to-face with Putin.