Little Hope for Substance from G-8 Summit

Scandals, and Putin, stand in the way of major developments.

President Barack Obama is having his first G-8 summit meeting at which Russian president Vladimir Putin will be present. He dodged the proverbial bullet last year when Putin declined to attend the 2012 summit at Camp David, which effectively turned the G-8 back into the Group of Seven, since Russia was represented by former president Dmitry Medvedev, who had assumed the position of prime minister. Some observers believed that this had been one of the more positive G-8 meetings in recent years—although the real effectiveness of the annual summits, beyond providing an opportunity for a number of key world leaders to interact collectively and bilaterally—is open to question.

The United States has, in recent years, wanted the G-8 to serve as a stand-in for the "international community" writ large. To the extent that Russia obstructs a Euro-American (and Japanese) consensus on any given issue, however, the G-8 is no more effective than the G-20 or the UN Security Council in allowing Washington to claim to be acting "on behalf" of the principal nations of the world.

One role that the Russians have been happy to fill at the G-8 is claiming that they speak on behalf of their fellow BRICS members (China, India, Brazil and now South Africa). There are hints that the BRICS forum is more broadly representative of humanity than a club of nations that, with the exception of Japan, represents the Euro-Atlantic world only. For example, in advance of the conclave in Northern Ireland, Putin came out to push for reform of the world's international financial institutions, calling for changes in how votes are apportioned at the IMF and World Bank that would allow for greater control and influence on the part of the rising powers.

In addition, Putin has never backed down from being the "odd man out" at a G-8 summit, a position he takes to prevent the emergence of a unified position if it contradicts or clashes with Russian national interests. In 2007, at the G-8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Putin was perfectly happy to obstruct a "consensus" position on supporting independence for Kosovo. Today, he will argue that the decision of Western countries to provide arms for the Syrian opposition is similarly a wrong-headed move.

From Moscow's perspective, the recent battlefield reversals of the rebellion were necessary as part of a strategy to make the rebels more likely to accept a negotiated settlement—one that would leave the Assad regime modified but in place. If the opposition can now expect direct support from the United States, its incentive to come to the bargaining table evaporates—and with it, Russia's hope for gaining credit for engineering a diplomatic solution that protected its equities in Syria. Putin is likely to dig in his heels to prevent any sort of G-8 communiqué on Syria from giving any kind of support for intervention on behalf of the Syrian opposition. The best that the United States can hope for is to solidify support for a common course of action among like-minded G-8 states on the sidelines of the meeting—and without being able to invoke the name of the G-8 in making any pronouncements.

Some had assumed that the G-8 summit’s focus on the role of civil society might put pressure on Putin, given political developments inside of Russia since his return to the presidency. But if the plan was to try to isolate Putin, the revelations about the activities of the National Security Agency will allow the Russian president to do what he does best at these meetings: prevent himself from being cornered by playing on tensions in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

As Michael Geary and Kevin Lees noted in The National Interest, Obama "will now face many more pointed inquiries about highly questionable intelligence gathering against European citizens" from his fellow chief executives. Putin's well-known ability to bring up Western double standards and to poke fun at claims about democracy—as he did during the 2006 summit in St. Petersburg at his joint press conference with George W. Bush—makes it likely that public face of the G-8 meeting will avoid any lecturing of Moscow while the main topic of the day remains the extent of U.S. electronic-surveillance activities.

The 2012 meeting raised the possibility, however faint, that the G-8 could return to greater relevance by forging consensus positions on issues prior to the subsequent G-20 summit. The gathering in Northern Ireland holds no such promise.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.