Hot air at the Johannesburg summit.

Hot air at the Johannesburg summit.

Hot air at the Johannesburg summit.

What the foreign papers are saying.
Aug. 26 2002 5:27 PM

Arrested Development?

As delegates gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, anticipatory press comment divided into two camps—the pro-summit romantics and the anti-summit cynics. Britain's Independent warned that "too much fashionable opinion in the rich world has already decided that it is a waste of time and money." Just because no binding treaty will come out of the gabfest doesn't make it pointless, said the editorial, "In the absence of a world government capable of decreeing and enforcing, like the Chinese regime, a one-child policy across the globe, today's summit is the only way the people of the world can make progress towards a sustainable way of life."

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The summit-bashing cynics were best represented by Britain's conservative papers, the Telegraph and the Times. The Sunday Telegraph dubbed the gathering a "summit of futility," noting that the 65,000 expected attendees will produce "as many greenhouse gases in two weeks as would half a million Africans in a year." The editorial continued: "No aim is too lofty, no statistic too implausible, no cliche too hackneyed for our eco-elites. Theirs is a world of hurray-words ('Third World, sustainable, Kyoto') and boo-words ('corporations, consumerism, Bush')." The Times, meanwhile, described the deluxe facilities at the summit, which is held at the "the most affluent cathedral of capitalism that Africa has to offer. Sandton City, the bolt-hole of Johannesburg businesses fleeing the crime and poverty of downtown, drips with opulence, from gilt taps to acres of marble floor." Apparently, 32 medical centers, 28 emergency vehicles, and three medical helicopters have been set up for the delegates. "If the negotiators fail to ensure that globalisation works for the world's poor, they can at least make sure that it works for them."

Several papers moaned that President Bush is staying away from the summit. Hong Kong's South China Morning Post said the Bush administration is "intent on derailing many potential agreements" to please its business-world backers: "The corporation-friendly administration of President George W. Bush is steering a unilateral course of selfishness and self-interest. Never mind that the US is the world's wealthiest nation and an equally big polluter of the environment, or that its companies have global reach and are tapping the material and human resources of the developing world for huge economic gain." The Netherlands' Algemeen Dagblad said a major breakthrough was unlikely because the United States is focused on the war on global terror; "The world's greatest energy consumer has altogether different things to attend to." (Dutch translation courtesy of BBC Monitoring.)

The Independent was one of the few left-of-center papers to praise the president's nonattendance, if only because he would distract attention from saving the planet: "[I]t may be beneficial that Mr Bush is not there. If he were to attend, he would be the focus of a festival of anti-Americanism, which might be satisfying for all kinds of reasons but which would ultimately be counter-productive in the all-important business of persuading American opinion." The Sunday Telegraph was more effusive in its praise:

The President, already disliked because of his opposition to the Kyoto treaty, has bruised the amour propre of many lesser heads of government by staying away from their carnival. But which is morally better: to refuse to go along with Kyoto because you honestly disagree with it, or to agree to its terms and then fail to implement them—as almost every other signatory has done? President Bush is comporting himself with an honesty that few of his critics in Johannesburg could match.

June Thomas is managing producer of Slate podcasts.