G8 foreign ministers struggled in vain to agree on a united approach to the bloody conflict in Syria. The talks in London did, however, achieve consensus regarding the situation on the Korean peninsula.
The eight foreign ministers from Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Canada, the US and Russia condemned "in the strongest possible terms the continued development of [North Korea's] nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs." The final statement by the G8 nations threatened Pyongyang with further sanctions if it goes ahead with missile tests.
The ministers made very clear that threats of nuclear attacks on the United States are not acceptable. They did not know whether there were domestic reasons for the North Korean leader's military rhetoric. But that is not what matters, according to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. "What is crucial in the end is that this rhetoric does not end in war," Westerwelle said. He described the situation as "worrying," adding that North Korea's threats must be taken seriously.
United in condemnation
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shared these concerns and supported the statement on North Korea. "On North Korea, we have no differences with the United States," Lavrov told reporters, adding that Russia is, after all, situated in the same region. "You should not scare anyone with military maneuvers."
Lavrov's German counterpart said that not only Western nations must be united on the issue, but China and Russia, too. "It is my impression that both have that intention," Westerwelle said.
According to Hanns Maull, a political scientist from the University of Trier, none of the G8 countries can really exert any pressure on North Korea. That role, he said, could only fall to North Korea's last ally, China.
Maull added that the fact that Russia has turned its back on Pyongyang and clearly signaled uneasiness with the situation also plays a role: "But where North Korea and the Korean Peninsula are concerned, China is the key major power, along with the United States."
Russia and the seven other leading industrialized nations see eye to eye on North Korea, but there is division over the conflict in Syria. In London, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Westerwelle met with representatives from the Syrian opposition, while Russia's foreign minister continues to support the Syrian government and President Assad. Guido Westerwelle described the situation in Syria as "terrible," and added that more weapons in the country do not necessarily mean fewer casualties. The German foreign minister is sceptical about an end to the European weapons embargo for Syrian insurgents, while France and Britain urge ending the embargo. Westerwelle also warned of a radicalization of the opposition, pointing out that Islamist terrorists might see "Damascus as a stop on the way to Jerusalem."
Germany favors a political process aimed at fostering a dialogue between the Syrian opposition and moderate members of the regime. Syrian opposition leaders, present on the sidelines of the meeting in London, also repeated calls for a political process. Western diplomats hope Russia might support such a process after all.
No headway would be made by attempting a quick military solution, Guido Westerwelle said. "Stable, sustainable solutions always imply a balance between different religions, ethnicities and sections of the population," he said. "In that respect, a political process is crucial, and it is Germany's role to push this process and support diplomatic solutions wherever possible."
In reality, the G8 is unable to cope with the Syrian civil war - it is the wrong body, said Hanns Maull, because the G8 cannot decide anything. Furthermore: "Russia is present at the G8 meetings, so the conflict mirrors that in the UN Security Council, which is much more relevant than the G8," he explained, adding that Russia would have to stop blocking Security Council measures if a real solution to the Syrian conflict is to become possible.
The G8 format was more or less superfluous in foreign policy matters, the political scientist said. He hinted that the group could be replaced by the G20, which includes China and important emerging nations.
German Foreign Minister Westerwelle disagreed with this assessment. He said that the informal G8 dinner in particular offered an important occasion for the foreign ministers to learn more about their colleagues' interests. "You cannot expect that the G8 will meet in London and the problems in places like Syria will simply be resolved," he said. "But it is important to stay in touch and not let talks stall. In difficult times in particular, negotiating formats like the G8 are especially important."
Both North Korea and the difficult negotiations with Iran illustrate how important disarmament and the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons are in the long run, Westerwelle said. He added that even fundamental visions like total nuclear disarmament were raised at G8 summits, although this was not his "personal pet issue." It wasn't about illusions, explained Westerwelle, but about a peaceful world for all mankind.