Tuesday, March 6
Some preliminary and random thoughts on the summit that got away:
Chicago is just now digesting the news, announced barely twelve hours before this is being written, that one of the two global summit meetings scheduled to be held here in May has been moved. The NATO summit May 20-21 will still be held in Chicago, but the G8 summit of leading economic nations, which was to have been here May 19-20, has been moved to Camp David.
Reporters are still scrambling to find the specific reasons for the move. Pundits will parse the long-term impact, to Chicago and the G8. But some immediate conclusions arise.
First, this decision was made in Washington, not Chicago. All signs indicate that City Hall was as surprised as the rest of us. Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted the two summits and, as far as we can see, felt the long-term benefit to the city, especially its glow in the global spotlight, was worth the cost, congestion and potential violence from demonstrations. His police chief was in the newspaper Monday morning hailing preparations for crowd control -- not a sign that the city expected the crowds to suddenly contract.
So the decision came from Washington and from Emanuel's old boss, President Obama. The reason? Still unclear. But a good bet is that the last thing Obama needed in an election year was televised anti-globalization violence in the streets of his home town. In this case, Chicago's amour-propre had to give way to politics. Emanuel, of all people, will understand.
But let's look on the bright side. If the G8's departure dings Chicago's image now, true violence later would have given it a bigger black eye. It's possible that Chicago just dodged a bullet.
And besides -- we've still got NATO, and that's big. Maybe bigger than the G8. The G8 brings together the leaders of the United States and Canada, the four richest European nations, Japan and Russia. When it began (without Russia) in the 1970s, these countries really ruled the world. Their economies dominated. That's changed. The G8 countries still count, but any economic summit that leaves out China, India and Brazil can't make the rules. That job belongs to another group, the G20, which includes the G8, plus China and the rest. The G20 summit will be held in Mexico in June. That's the big show. The G8 meeting is basically a Western caucus to prepare for Mexico.
The NATO summit, by contrast, will bring to Chicago the heads of all 28 NATO nations, plus 40 partner nations. Increasingly, among these partners are Mideast nations, including ones that worked with NATO in the Libyan intervention. The summit will discuss how to get out of Afghanistan, what to do about Syria, how to pay for defense in an era of budget squeezes, the future of American leadership. This is big stuff. The decisions made here really count.
Only one other American city, Washington, has ever hosted a NATO summit. Chicago shouldn't be embarrassed.
But won't the demonstrators still come? Doesn't the threat of violence still exist? Well, yes and no.
The demonstrators say they'll still be here in force, but that's what they have to say. The reality is that it's the economy, not the military, that raises public temperatures these days.
Real protest is personal. This isn't 1968, when protest against the Vietnam War led to blood in the Chicago streets. The draft still existed then, and young people protested, quite rightly, at the idea that they might be sent to Vietnam. In the past decade, the United States has fought two wars, one needless and both mishandled. But there's been little public protest and almost none at all by young people. It's a volunteer army now and young people who don't want to go to Afghanistan don't have to go.
Instead, it's the economy that causes personal damage now -- college debt, high unemployment, diminished opportunity, the sheer unfairness of a distorted economic system. When protesters rail against this, they're right. Protest may be inherently selfish, but that's why it's effective.
There'll be some anti-NATO protesters in Chicago, but probably not that many. The last NATO summit, in Lisbon in 2010, drew protests but nothing the Portuguese police couldn't handle.
The decision to move the G8 summit to Camp David may or may not show that the administration didn't think Chicago could handle it: we really don't know yet. But the fact may be that no city can handle it. Since 2001, when the G8 summit in Genoa descended into fatal violence, no host nation has dared hold one in a major city. In addition, no city in decades has tried to host a G8 and NATO summit at the same time. Instead, G8 summits, because they draw protests, have been held at sites that are remote and easily-defended. Like Camp David.
But still...........Chicago feels a little deflated today. Like the day it was passed over for the 2016 Olympic Games, which went to Rio. Speaking personally, I never thought hosting the Olympics was a good idea and I had my doubts about the G8 summit. But both issues got mixed up with civic pride. If we're not going to have either, I wish the decision had been taken here, not in Washington or Copenhagen.
So where does Chicago go from here? Where it was going before the Monday announcement. We've still got NATO, and that's big. Besides, the city was beginning to look past security issues to the substance of the G8 meeting and how its agenda affects Chicago and the Midwest -- what it means to be a global city, how global trade and investment impact this region, how the global becomes local.
The Chicago Council played a central role in this education. We'd planned -- and are still planning -- public programs, conferences, seminars, special web sites with information on both NATO and the G8. We were part of a two-day program for Midwestern journalists on the NATO/G8 issues, and a website for visiting journalists on Chicago stories. All this goes on. Nothing has changed, because the issues haven't changed.
In a global world, big meetings come and go. One is still coming to Chicago, the other isn't. But the need to understand the global economy remains and if the preparations for a summit that passed through on its way to Camp David help this understanding, we're making the most of it.