Kabuki Diplomacy

World leaders gather this week in Japan for the annual ritual of the G8 summit. But not much of anything will get done, now or in the future, unless some big changes are made.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain caused a bit of controversy when he suggested earlier this year that the G8 should become "again a club of leading market democracies"-expanding to include Brazil and India, but excluding Russia. While the senator's specific membership-roster proposals can be debated, the dynamics of the G8 summit, which opened on Monday in Toyako, Japan, underscore his larger point: the first step toward building effective international institutions is to ensure that members have common interests, if not shared histories and values. Yet the G8, like many multilateral forums, has become more about institutionalized form than substantive utility. Arguably, these organizations raise more expectations-and, perhaps inadvertently, give rise to additional problems-than they are capable of tackling.

The G8 began coherently enough in 1975 as a vehicle for leveraging the combined political and economic strength of its members in pursuit of their common interest. The six largest industrialized democracies at the time-the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, Japan and West Germany-convened to discuss the economic challenges they faced after the Arab oil embargo and the subsequent global recession. When Canada joined the following year, the group became the G7. Since 1977, the president of the European Commission has also attended; in addition, the country holding the rotating presidency of the European Council now sends a representative.

After the cold war, Russia was invited to attend and confer with the G7 leaders in a separate meeting. At the behest of President Bill Clinton, in 1997 Moscow jointed the group as a full member, despite the Kremlin's rapidly diminishing economic heft at the time and questionable democratic credentials. The Clinton attempt to integrate America's former superpower rival opened the door for all sorts of states to demand admission as a means of confirming their international significance. As a result, the guest list increasingly veered into incoherence, depending on the good sense-or lack thereof-of the summit host. At the 2007 Heiligendamm meeting, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel invited to the leaders of five countries deemed to be "emerging economies" (China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa) as well as five other "African outreach" nations (Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Senegal and Ghana).

Like classic Japanese theater, this year's confab is of an intricate web of overlapping circles: the G8 proper (with French President Nicolas Sarkozy dual-hatted as both French chief of state and coleader of the EU delegation, along with commission president José Manuel Barroso); members of Outreach Group 1 (the leaders of Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping); members of Outreach Group 2 (the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa); and non-G8 countries belonging to the "Major Economies Group" (Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa).

The criteria for participation, other than prior attendance, are not especially transparent. If it is size of economy, it seems a bit odd that thirtieth-ranked South Africa is invited as a "major economy," but Taiwan, ranked twenty-third globally in terms of nominal GDP, is totally excluded-despite being the world's fifth-largest creditor nation, with foreign-exchange reserves in excess of $290 billion. For that matter, if the G8 is an economic grouping, both ninth-ranked Canada and tenth-ranked Russia really ought to cede their places to third-ranked China and eighth-ranked Spain. Madrid, at least, will get indirect representation through the EU. But Beijing will have to content itself with Wednesday's early morning breakfast for Outreach Group 2 leaders and a working lunch for "major economies" later that day.

If democratic credentials were determining, the presence of Nigeria's Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, among others, would be problematic at best. Yar'Adua, after all, was declared the winner of a presidential poll that was branded "not credible" and "seriously flawed" by all of the G8 foreign ministries except Russia's. If political coherence is a benchmark, it makes little sense to have individual EU members represented as well as the Union as a whole-and this was before the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. If military strength is a measure of overall national power-and it certainly remains so, notwithstanding postmodern fancies about "transformation" and "paradigm shifts"-Israel and Turkey are just two countries which ought to have been issued invitations on the strength of their militaries alone. And, given the challenge to the global economy posed by spiking oil prices, shouldn't space have been found for the Saudis, Iranians, Iraqis and Kuwaitis, owners of the four largest proven petroleum reserves in the world?