What is the G-8 and Why is Russia in It?

What is the G-8 and Why is Russia in It?

Russia's involvement in the Group of 8 (G-8) is promising in both for Russia and for the G-8.


Russia's involvement in the Group of 8 (G-8) is promising in both for Russia and for the G-8. It is promising for Russia -- and for those Americans who want a friendly and Westernizing Russia -- as the best venue thus far developed for sustaining and strengthening Russia's connection with the West. And it is promising for the G-8 as an institution - as a way of enhancing its own importance.

There are opportunities in this situation that the West could be exploring. Unfortunately, the West is damaging its interests by focusing its discussion instead on thoughts of expelling Russia from the G-8.


The G-8 is a good fit for Russia. It is the widest major Western institution geographically: it is both transatlantic and trans-Pacific. With Russia included, it is now pan-North. The "North" is a grouping that has important things its countries need to do together. When it is united, the world is fairly cohesive; when it is divided, the world is torn into conflict as it was throughout the twentieth century, Adding Russia has not detracted from the Group's identity, either in a purposive or a geographical sense; on balance it has strengthened that identity by filling a hole in it.

The G-8 is also the widest-ranging of the Western institutions in its subject-matter. It is open to dealing with every aspect of mutual cooperation and of global governance -- everything, in fact, on which Russia and the Western countries have common business. It has a better fit to the contours of Russia-West business than most of the other Western institutions.

Further, the G-8 is an institution against which Russia has no Cold War hang-ups. It, in turn, has no Cold War hang-ups against Russia, a virtue owed to one of its vices: it has no permanent staff that could have accumulated such hang-ups or "milieu culture." As an institution, it has minimal structure; it could probably use more baggage, but meanwhile it adapts easily. Its one sphere of semi-formalized cooperation -- macroeconomic supervision and central bank coordination on currency intervention -- is one that Russia is not a part of, for honest technical reasons (not political reasons masquerading for diplomatic purposes as innocuous technical ones, as is often the case in NATO). However, the defining part of the G-8 -- the Summit -- is completely flexible. It holds a large potential for institutional development underneath itself, but over the decades this potential has gone almost completely unrealized.

Russia began speaking of joining the G-8 -- or rather the G-7, as it was then known -- in Gorbachev's time.  Westerners in turn began talking of bringing in Russia during the last years of the Gorbachev era. In the subsequent decade, Russia gradually was in fact brought in, first as an observer or guest, then as a participant in a "G-7 + 1", then as a part of the "political G-8." Nowadays it is usually described simply as "a member of the G-8." At each stage of its inclusion, its involvement proved advantageous to both sides. Today the G-8 is the one transatlantic institution in which Russia is a clear-cut member: in all the others, Russia is still in a process of joining or still left out.

Indeed, the G-8 is the one Western institution that Russia not only supports but would like to see strengthened. This is partly because it is a member; partly because there is a natural affinity, which enables it to identify with the grouping once it has become a member (presumably Russia would not want to strengthen some other groupings, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, in which it participates). As such, it is perhaps an indication of the support that can be hoped for once Russia joins the other Western institutions. Sergei Karaganov has long maintained that, in the case of NATO, Russia will continue viewing it with fear as long as it is on the outside, but will become a NATO supporter once Russia becomes a member of it. This comports with elementary realist logic and with Russia's own repeated "dialectical" formulations that what it is against is not NATO per se, NATO's use of power nor NATO expansion per se, but the use of power and the expansion of a NATO in which Russia is not included or does not have sufficient voice in its decisions. However, it does not comport with NATO's evaluations of Russian attitudes, which have generally followed a simpler categorization as either "pro" or "anti-NATO" without reference to qualifying conditions. This oversimplified method of evaluation in the West creates a difficult new hurdle for Russia, arguably a vicious circularity. In the case of the G-7, Russia was never very much "anti", whether conditionally or otherwise, so it did not have the same hurdle to surmount. In any event, it is the G-8 that Russia is in now, and that Russia supports.

Benefits of Russian Support for the G-8

Having Russian support for a pan-Western institution is not an unimportant thing. It adds significantly to the global strength of the institution. It not only adds Russia's material strengths, which are still considerable; it also adds acceptance of the institution's legitimacy by those around the world who are clients of Russia, particularly those who are in varying degrees its "moral clients" -- a sometimes large category, Moscow developed a vast moral clientele during the Cold War, comprising a number of governments along with secular radical forces inside nearly every country in the world.

Russia's reinforcement of a pan-Western institution in turn entails, more specifically, reinforcement of the strength and legitimacy of Western global leadership. This is a factor that is if some importance to Americans at this time of strong American-Western pretensions to the leadership.

Further, Russia's support for the Western institution has the potential of adding a political impetus from Russia -- a country that still has some innovative capabilities in this period of its transformation -- to the processes of developing the G-8. It is very much in the West's interests for its common institutions and arrangements to grow more effective, but this is something that is never achieved easily in face of the resistance of entrenched interests within each country and government. It is to the advantage of the West to have Russia acting as a new force for moving the process forward.

By contrast, it has been to the disadvantage of the West to have Russia sitting uncomfortably on the outside, acting as a nervous, fearful critic of Western unity. Its objections from the outside have often able to slow down the progress of Western integration; as we have noted, Russia always had a moral clientele in the West, and in any case Western diplomats, while often slow after 1989 to see how to bring Russia indoors, have generally considered it unwise to trample too hard on Russia while keeping it outside. During the Cold War, Russia would have liked to split the Western alliance; it became so habitual to accuse Russia of trying to "divide and deceive the West" that Russia is still often accused in NATO circles of wanting to do this, and much of the Western elite believed up to 1990 that this was the real purpose behind Gorbachev's reforms. Today, however, what Russia wants to do -- at least in the case of the G-8 -- is not to divide and deceive, but to further unite and strengthen the West.

Russia could be said to harbor great ambitions for the G-8 -- the sort of ambitions one might think ought to be found in the West, and of which the West could be viewed as being perversely lacking. Russia views the G-8 as an increasingly important venue for global governance; some of its analysts have described it as a kind of emerging "world government", supplementing although not completely replacing the UN Security Council, which suffers from being stuck in the 1945 mould. Russian views on the most urgent tasks for global governance -- the war on terrorism and the struggle against proliferation -- fit in with the views of the other G-8 countries, particularly the U.S.

Yet, instead of building on this support in order to upgrade the G-8, the talk in the West nowadays is of kicking Russia out of the G-8. This is supposed to be a way of teaching it an object lesson about democracy, although it would likely have the opposite effect. And it would be damaging to the West's own interests.

What has gone wrong? Where has Western thinking on the subject gone off course?

Misunderstanding of the G-8 in the West

Part of the problem is a misunderstanding of what the G-8 is. Many of the "expel Russia" proponents are focused on Russia, not on the Atlantic institutions per se. It is a hiatus in which, to be sure, they are far from alone: in general there is a lack of an adequate public framework in the West for conceptualizing the Atlantic institutions. Several of expulsionists have said -- a few have told me personally -- that it "makes sense" to drop Russia from the G-8 because "the G-8 is a club of democracies." They don't ask whether it would be practically useful to expel Russia; they simply feel that doing this would in some sense be "appropriate" to their image of the G-8.