Talk to most Chicagoans now about the twin summit meetings of the Group of 8 and NATO, scheduled for mid-May, and they'll probably tell you that it's a "real roll of the dice." Which is just about right.
Supporters of the summits, including the people in charge of organizing the city's hosting of them, will say that big splashy meetings like this are part of being a global city, will show off Chicago's beauty, turn the world's spotlight on the city and will, in short, put it on the map. Opponents of the summits say that having them in the middle of a city like Chicago is simply a recipe for disaster, an historic traffic jam at best, protester-driven riots at worst, and a budget-buster in any case.
Either side may be proved right. But right now, nobody knows -- how many people and protesters will come, how the police will handle the protests, whether the endless motorcade will turn the city into gridlock, how much of the costs will come out of local taxpayers' pockets and, especially, whether Chicago will end up with glittering global publicity or a great big civic black eye.
Here's what we know: for the first time, the summit meetings of the eight G8 nations and the 27 NATO nations (some, like the US, the same nations) will meet in one city, Chicago, on May 19-21. A summit meeting, by definition, is for top leaders, so the presidents and prime minister of these countries will be here, along with their various ministers and aides. And that, at this moment, is about all we know.
Here's what we expect: Delegations from some 60 other nations will come, many led by their own presidents and prime minister. Some of these will be big nations, like China and India, and others will be small developing countries. In addition, there will be 2,500 to 3,000 journalists. Plus and especially, there will be thousands of demonstrators and protesters against NATO and the war in Afghanistan, against Russia or China or other authoritarian countries, or, particularly, against the economic policies of the G8 nations, the recession, global and local inequality, pollution and other economic-based causes. It will be a magnet for Occupy-type protesters from around the world who see the G8 governments as part of the "1 percent."
So some chaos is likely. The demonstrators will be in the streets and parks. Motorcades of 60 global leaders will monopolize traffic. The federal government is in charge of overall security but this security will be enforced by Chicago police and the Chicago city government. Many Chicagoans with long memories think the stage is set for a repetition of the 1968 Democratic Party convention here, which ended in what became officially labeled as "police riot," literally with bloodshed in the streets.
As police swung their batons, the demonstrators began chanting "the whole world is watching." The man who coined that phrase, a highly respected Chicago political activist named Don Rose, is now in his '80s and still around. No fan of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Rose has written that the May summits may turn into a 1968-style "violent confrontation."
Why then would any mayor, like Emanuel, invite the summits to town? For one thing, another Chicagoan, President Barack Obama, Emanuel's ex-boss, asked him to. And as Emanuel has said, "Chicago is a magnet for those who think big. There's no better place for leaders to find solutions to the world's biggest challenges than right here in the President's home town."
Emanuel is betting that he can pull off the summits with minimum disruption, that his police will be able to control the protesters, that the protesters will protest peacefully, that the weekend meetings won't disrupt the lives of most Chicagoans, that the private sector will pony up the city's share of security costs, estimated at about $40 million -- and that the notoriously fickle Chicago weather will behave, providing a glittering backdrop to the televised meetings.
Other supporters say that these summits and other big events, like World's Fairs and Olympic Games, are simply what global cities do. If you want to be a world city, occasionally you have to invite the world to come calling. A successful summit could help Chicago, which traditionally has done a terrible job of publicizing its glitz and glories, overcome its old "bang-bang-Al-Capone" image.
All this, including the weather, is truly a roll of the dice. But if Emanuel can pull this off and if the demonstrators are allowed to protest with minimum violence, both the mayor and the city will look good and the bet may pay off. Even the weather might cooperate: it'll be May, after all.
Summit organizers are taking heat from the Chicago media right now because they don't have the answers to all these unknowns. This is unfair, because most of the information -- on who's coming, on agendas, on security -- has to come from Washington. The city and the organizers, like the cops, will be taking their orders from the feds, and they haven't told Chicago yet what it needs to know. They will, in their own good time, because their boss, Obama, wants the summit to go smoothly. But in the meantime, a very nervous city just has to be patient.
My own feeling on the summits is skepticism mixed with hope. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which includes our Global Midwest Initiative and this blog, is a partner of the host committee and very much involved in the summit planning. We will be running a variety of programs, conferences, meetings and web sites, most aimed at educating Chicagoans on the G8 and NATO and the issues on the summit agendas, plus a web site steering those thousands of visiting journalists to sources on Chicago. So I don't exactly stand on neutral ground here.
But the outcome of summits, like most things, depends on how well they are run. Chicago, for instance, handled its Occupy protesters reasonably fairly and well and avoided violence. Other cities didn't. Perhaps the city learned something from its 1968 memories.
One thing is certain is that, local fears to the contrary, this won't be 1968 all over again, or even a repeat of the WTO riots in Seattle in 1999 or the fatal riots surrounding the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in 2001. In 1968, a paranoid city government, terrified by rumors that anti-war demonstrators would do things like dump LSD in the city's drinking water, prepared for a siege. The city's police, spoiling for a fight, were easily provoked by taunting demonstrators. Everybody did everything wrong, and Chicago suffered a debacle that has become part of the city's historical memory.
The riots in Seattle and Genoa were surprises. Nobody expected the demonstrations. Police, caught off guard, had no idea how to respond.
Within 1968 in mind, and with plenty of advance intelligence on proposed demonstrations, Chicago will be better prepared to cope. And, as mentioned, the command posts will be run by the feds, not local police.
But that doesn't answer the question whether a global city really needs these big global events.
Since Genoa in 2001, only one host country has held a G8 summit in a major city. The sole exception is Russia: President Vladimir Putin, whose police have their own ways of commanding obedience, hosted a summit in St. Petersburg. Otherwise, summits since 2001 have been in easily-defended backwaters -- Kananaskis (Alberta), Evian (France), Sea Island (Georgia), Gleneagles (a Scottish golf course), Hilingendamm (Germany), Toyako (Japan), L'aquila (Italy), Huntsville (Ontario) and Deauville (France.) Not a global city in that lot.
In other words, this Chicago summit represents a gamble that no other world leader in a decade has been willing to take.
Yes, global cities are indeed where the world's movers and shakers meet. But most of these meetings, from conventions to trade shows to big athletic events, tend to be less confrontational.
Olympics and World's Fairs have similar histories. Maybe Spain does these things better, but only Barcelona and Seville, who held the Olympics and a World's Fair respectively in 1992, made them pay off in lasting benefits to the cities. Most (Montreal, Athens) emerged with huge debts or (Atlanta, Munich) black eyes. Beijing's Olympics spotlighted the city, but at the cost of ripping out much of its historic older neighborhoods, the hutongs. We'll find out this summer whether London benefits or not from its Olympics.
World's Fairs used to be held in global cities like London, Paris and, yes, Chicago. But recent fairs have been held in second-tier cities such as Spokane, Naha, Knoxville, New Orleans, Tsukuba, Vancouver, Brisbane, Seville, Genoa, Daejeon, Lisbon, Hannover, Aichi and Zaragoza.
A moral? Big extravaganzas can succeed. I hope Chicago's summits go off without a hitch. But these epics are not crucial to a city's global standing these days. It's not thinking small to suggest that what goes on in a city day by day -- its business, travelers, universities -- counts for more than the occasional blowout.