We are living at a time of tremendous challenges. It is incumbent upon leaders of the G8 to promote a more open international economy and progress in such areas as human rights and the environment.

The financial crash of 2008 unsettled the global marketplace, battered many national economies, and caused numerous governments to look inward.  Although some countries, such as Canada, came through relatively unscathed, the long-term fiscal problems facing America, Europe, Japan, and many other nations are enormous.

Thus, the most important challenge is to expand economic cooperation in the face of increased protectionist pressures. The latter is evident in the U.S., for instance, where the Congress has yet to ratify free trade agreements negotiated by the Bush administration.  American leadership also has been lacking in moving forward with the World Trade Organization’s Doha round.

Nations around the globe must rise above parochial political concerns and remove barriers to expanded markets.  The U.S. and Europe must reduce agricultural subsidies.  Major developing states like China and India should increase access for services and non-agricultural products.  Other lesser developed countries need to give up some of their trade preferences as their commerce with the industrialized world increases. Greater trade liberalization is always good policy, but in the wake of this global recession it is a necessity.  

There are military threats which require improved international cooperation.  Iraq’s democracy remains fragile.  The situation in Afghanistan offers a growing challenge.  Iran continues its nuclear course.  All of these situations threaten the peace.

Moreover, despite the West’s victory over the Soviet Union, liberal values again are under attack.  Iran is smothering what little independent civil society existed before last year’s stolen election.  Russia has steadily traded freedom for authoritarianism.  In joining political repression with economic freedom, China is providing an alternative model for many developing states.

The first response to this calculated attack on basic human rights should come from civil society.  For instance, Internet activists have worked to thwart government controls, and have shared their programs across nations and cultures.  Individuals, churches, associations, corporations, and other organizations should do what they can to promote humane political values, even if they are only able to liberate one person at a time.

Second, democratic governments should coordinate how to more effectively promote the West’s fundamental values.  While we cannot impose democracy on other nations, we can lead by example as well as use policy tools ranging from international aid to political relations to commercial dealings to promote respect for human rights.  We also need to encourage democratic governments of developing nations like India and Indonesia to take a more active role in advancing political freedom.

Finally, we must address a variety of development and environmental problems.  We must emphasize practical results, not political ideology.

Governments tend to look at foreign aid as the best means to promote developing world economic growth, but the experience of these programs is disappointing.  More effective would be restarting the engines of growth in the West.  Developing states will expand as they trade with and receive investment from wealthier states.

Promoting the rule of law, political stability, and human rights is also critical to economic development.  Foreign investment and trade depend on legal certainty and social stability.  Indigenous growth requires freeing local entrepreneurs from inefficient and unfair government controls.

Poor nations also face extraordinary challenges in educating their children and providing their people with health care, especially in a world of AIDS.  The best first step for all countries, however, is to foster a growing economy.  Without wealth production, there is nothing available to meet social needs.
Environmental issues matter too, though improved policies are most likely to follow increased economic growth.  People will worry about the quality of the air they breathe and water they drink only after they can feed their families.

In promoting environmental change, we should focus on problems where we can achieve the best results for the most people.  While much of the developed world focuses on the potential of climate change, we could save more lives at less cost by simply bringing clean water to people throughout the developing world.  At a time of financial crisis, we must think strategically on how to best use our limited resources.

Many G8 meetings have come at important times.  This one is no different.  The West’s leaders must pursue an agenda that emphasizes economic and political freedom.  Only free peoples will be able to successfully confront the serious problems that threaten our future well-being.

Michelle Bernard is President of the Independent Women’s Forum and MSNBC Political Analyst.