Does the G8 Still Matter?

July 3, 2008 Topic: Economics

Does the G8 Still Matter?

The G8 summit is coming up, but the group’s leadership is on shaky ground, panelists at The Nixon Center said on Wednesday.

The world is facing a crisis of global leadership. Discussions in the run-up to the G8 summit next week in Toyako, Japan, underline the daunting challenges of trying to repair the broken system of international governance.

From July 7-9, as the Nixon Center's executive director and moderator of the discussion Paul Saunders said, the world's heaviest hitters will meet to discuss the most-pressing problems. Former ambassador to Germany and current managing director at McLarty Associates, Richard Burt, and Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation met at the Nixon Center on Wednesday to look at an even-more-basic issue: whether the G8 still matters. Or, as Ambassador Burt asked, if it ever did.

The G8's purview is simply too broad to be effective, Burt argued. The group should return to its roots, economics, if it hopes to retain relevancy in today's world of global markets and interconnected states. Leverrett agreed, but put the future of the group in even-starker terms: developing a strategy of global economic governance is "imperative" for the G8's survival, and U.S. interests in a rapidly changing world. Failing to adapt, he said, is simply an "abrogation of responsibility."

Change is difficult, though, when the international community can't even agree on which states to include under that heavy-hitter heading. Presidential candidate John McCain has come under fire recently for suggesting that Russia be excluded from the G8 and that the United States spearhead an effort to create a "league of democracies." Strictly following this more-ideological take on the international architecture, states like China, with market-based economies but authoritarian governments, shouldn't have a seat at the G8's table.

Burt is currently a supporter and unofficial advisor of McCain. The interpretation he provided was a bit more flexible than campaign rhetoric might suggest. In his view, McCain's proposal doesn't reflect a specific plan but rather a general desire for greater cooperation among democracies, perhaps even through a "democracy caucus" in the United Nations, something the Bush administration has also sought.

But the G8 wasn't formed on ideology. It began in the 1970s as an informal forum for discussion of the economic matters confronting the states with the most influence over the global market. Leverett added that the original group was made up of democracies more out of necessity than choice. The world's strongest economies were once only the world's democracies. But we no longer have the "luxury" to include only democracies in the G8, Leverett continued.

Burt said the group has since morphed into more of a political animal. But we need to expand our view, and soon. Thanks in large part to globalization, Leverett commented, we can't confront fundamental shifts in international economics without including developing, though perhaps less-democratic, countries.

Ambassador Antonio Patriota of Brazil shed some light on what adapting might mean, stressing that the current situation is "not sustainable." Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva, Patriota said, expressed this sentiment when he complained about the West's failure to engage with Brazil and other economies outside of the G8. He said Brazil has no interest in participating in a summit if only invited to dessert-he wants to be there for the main course, too. Patriota, in addition to Burt and Leverett, argued that the membership of the G8 needs to be expanded for the group to maintain its relevance.

But as long as these countries continue to be excluded (or threatened with exclusion), current G8 members risk pushing them closer together. In fact, Patriota pointed out, this is already happening. The foreign ministers of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China-two democracies and two  nondemocracies, whose total GDP, some predict, will exceed the G7 total by mid-century) agreed this year to meet annually and discuss policy issues.

And all this is increasingly dangerous, as Leverett noted, since oil producers (and manufacturers like China that have successfully adapted to the changing international environment) are gaining more and more leverage. While Burt limited his comments to the BRIC countries for the most part, Leverett expanded his urgent call for greater inclusion to the Middle East, especially the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which he said may soon become the world's largest investors. Stressing the economic strength of these oil exporters in the face of rapidly increasing energy demands, he thinks it folly to not include these states in discussions that are supposed to shape international policy.

On a broader scale, as the panelists noted, the G8 is the logical place to start setting a precedent for an overhaul of the entire international architecture, laying the groundwork for reworking other institutions like the UN Security Council. It's a good place, Leverett said, to start to try developing "global governance mechanisms."

And in Ambassador Burt's opinion, the current lull in press coverage of the G8 and its upcoming summit provides a great opportunity to revamp the institution. The group's undertakings have evolved over the years, he said, into "a kind of media circus," straying from the more-substantive and more-secluded discussions of the early years. If members could give up playing to the media and scoring photo-ops with rock stars like Bono, the G8 could have a chance to get back to the basics.

For now, the G8 summit, capping off Japan's presidency, will focus on the topics the group has concentrated on over the last year, ranging from economic issues and climate change to development in Africa and nonproliferation. But the panelists agreed that little progress is likely without broader participation.

What we need, Burt noted, quoting Richard Nixon, is a "structure of peace" including an expanded G8 and other institutions. The architecture should afford the United States a leadership role while also taking into account the interests of others. After all, he said, politics often soften and converge when lines of communication remain open.


Rebecca N. White is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.