Learning what not to do from the G-8

Paul Bograd

Posted on July 24, 2006

I have written a few times recently with recommendations about what Asia can learn from the west. It occurred to me that I might be completely misunderstood. The critical point I was trying to make is that in the geo-political and economic missteps of Europe, the Middle East and North America there are great opportunities for Asia.

So in the spirit of advice as to what not to do, I was influenced by three relatively minor publications:

The first was a compilation of the uniformly critical commentary in response the recent G-8 meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The second was another in the endless series of fables by ASEAN ministers to do something about Myanmar.

And the third and most influential was a recent posting on AsianPundit.com by my colleague Orly Mercado.

If you have been reading my recent posting, you might have suspected that I have been in a bit of an invasion induced, depressive funk about recent geo-political events, but honestly I wake up to the morning news full of hope.

The G-8 Summit

However the series of fraternity boy antics by President Bush at the G-8 meeting was a bit much. Now groping Angela Merkel showed a public sexuality that I didn’t realize that President Bush had. Luckily no one peeked into the back seats of the parked limousines, or stem cells would have been the least of the President’s social missteps.

And howling across the room at Prime Minister Blair as if he was a drunken pledge at the Skull & Bones Society’s Industrialized Nations Keg Party just didn’t convey the kind of leadership one might hope for given the relatively dire world events that surrounded this particular G-8 summit.

I mean the Middle East is at the kind of flashpoint that the world hasn’t experienced since the first Iraq invasion and Saddam was lobbing SCUDS into every Middle East capital that he could aim at. Energy prices threaten every nation’s economic future and most energy resources are in the hands of political leaders of… shall we say, less than honorable character.

Now one would think that these are good enough reasons for the G-8 summit participants to be serious and focused and use the opportunity to leverage the collective economic power of these eight industrialized economic giants to motivate some sanity (Well 7 giants anyway and one slow witted half brother who happens to have a lot of gas and oil.).

ASEAN and Myanmar

Actually I don’t get what ASEAN does. I mean other than have meetings. There are more ASEAN and ASEAN-related meetings going on throughout Southeast Asia than there are overage, bad looking European men prowling the bars of Nana and Patpong in Bangkok. There’s the ASEAN Heads of State meetings… there are the various ASEAN Ministers meetings to prepare for the ASEAN Heads of State meetings… there are the various ASEAN Deputy Ministers meetings to prepare for the ASEAN Ministers meetings which are preparing for the ASEAN Heads of State meetings… And of course there are the various ASEAN Secretariats meetings to prepare for the all the other meetings. And then there is the annual complaint by ASEAN that the United States doesn’t take ASEAN seriously… Duh!

Now don’t let it be said that I didn’t recognize that ASEAN is different from the G-8. The G-8 summit attendees have their group photos taken in boring old traditional western business attire. But ASEAN members, in the great tradition of APEC, wear matching national costumes of the host country and engage in Karaoke. Sort of like a regional political leaders bowling team.

So other than the occasional hand wringing about Myanmar; and incoherent ramblings about a regional currency; what does ASEAN do, or rather what should it do?

Let me humbly offer my opinion. In geo-political terms, ASEAN ought to be spending most of its waking moments working on North Korea. If the radioactive winds of a piece of nuclear stupidity blow, ASEAN is right in the pathway.

In economic terms they should be less worried about foreigners buying land, and a whole lot more worried about the giant sucking sound from the north as China sucks up every job that is not nailed down.

Get Real ASEAN… it’s about protecting peoples lives.

Orly Mercado & Outrage

Honestly, these might be challenges too big to expect much movement on so let’s look at what is achievable. For this I credit my colleague Orly Mercado and his recent posting: “Take Advantage of the Outrage,” about the failure of the warning system during last week’s tsunami in West Java, Indonesia.

It is incredible that less than 24 months after the Christmas tsunami killed 250,000 people, a tsunami warning system failed. It failed not because the science was wrong, or even because the big picture system didn’t work. To quote Mercado, “The warning system is not yet fully set up. Budgetary and bureaucratic snags have been blamed. In spite of this, the Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and Japan’s Meteorological Agency issued alerts. The failure was at the user’s end. The communication infrastructure was not in place at the local level. The risks were not communicated. The sirens were not heard by the people at the water’s edge.”

It failed because ASEAN and many of its member states spend so much time and money building the ASEAN institution and trying to be geo-political big boys that they have neglected the main responsibility of governing. Protect and nurture the lives of your citizens.

Now I am not one of those people that think that government can protect people from real life, or natural disasters or even the inevitable man-made catastrophes of modern technological life. But it is not too much to expect that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, that governments should be able to pass on the warning that a seven-meter high tsunami is about to destroy your village. Remember they knew the tsunami was coming. They didn’t communicate the danger effectively.

ASEAN should look very hard at itself and think about what it could be… Because the people in those villages are really pissed off.

Now Orly Mercado is a public leader who always looks to turn adversity into solutions and he advocates a productive use of the anger. Mercado says, “The task at hand is formulating a communication plan that not only raises the level of awareness and understanding of the people at risk, but would take advantage of the prevailing feeling of outrage. How to channel this frustration into resolve is the challenge to all international agencies and governments involved.”

Here I will disagree slightly with Orly. More of that outrage ought to be directed at the political and institutional leadership that has failed them.

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