In reality, the G-8 is not a club of democracies, nor a school of democracy, nor a place to be giving grades on democratic purity; to find that kind of institution, the places to look are the Council of Europe and the fledgling global Community of Democracies. It would make sense to discuss whether Russia is democratic enough to "belong" in these clubs. But that is not what the G-8 is about.
The G-8 is a practical institution for dealing with joint problems. It is a part of the extended Atlantic grouping of institutions that includes NATO, OECD, IEA, hazmat suppliers clubs, IEA, NPA, and other institutions, almost all of which Russia is affiliated with and some of which have already included Russia as a member.
The G-7 was formed originally in the 1970s for maintaining economic coordination among the Western powers after the collapse of the original Bretton Woods currency system. It gradually took on a broader role as a general foreign affairs summit of the Western powers. It was upgraded in its economic functions by Treasury Secretary James Baker in the mid-1980s. It gradually upgraded itself in its political functions by widening its subject matter at a number of summits. It was further upgraded in these political functions by its expansion to a G-8 with Russia -- functions, it should be reiterated for the sake of clarify, that consist of foreign policy coordination, not mutual political education or training in democracy. Russia's inclusion was a natural step and one that proved helpful to the Group.
The G-8's original members were drawn from the largest countries in the OECD, which existed for more than a decade prior to the G-7's formation. Since Russia intends to join the OECD, and since the OECD has decided that it intends to have Russia as a member once Russia meets the technical and economic conditions, the G-8 summit, with its less formal and technical role, is the logical place for Russia at this stage.
Some, such as James Huntley, have seen the G-8, with its summits on the highest level, as the venue where there is more potential energy and visibility than the other transatlantic institutions, and have proposed building on this fact. They have advocated giving the G-8 a secretariat for continuity of work, tasking it with energizing the entire set of Atlantic institutions by planning initiatives for them, and making it the public face for these institutions collectively. In this way, the G-8 would provide the Atlantic institutions a collective identity and visibility as an international community of nations; in effect it would give a new lease on life to what used to be called "the Atlantic community". Whether or not this vision comes to pass, the prospects for an evolution in this direction are certainly enhanced by the inclusion of Russia in the G-8 and the political upgrading it has already brought.
Nothing in international life is ever a perfect fit, and Russia is not a perfect fit to the old G-7. It is not a perfect fit economically, yet even in this sphere its presence can help fill out the Group's global hegemony by adding Russia's tremendous natural resources -- oil, gas, and other essential minerals -- to fill in the major hole of mineral supply insecurity that hitherto plagued the G-7. It is not a perfect fit politically, yet neither was Japan for a period of decades when it had a hegemonic regime that regularly racked up majorities similar to Putin's; and membership was helpful in creating the space and confidence for the Japanese consensus system of quasi-democracy to evolve peacefully into a more pluralistic Western-style system. Russia is also not the only country in the history of the Group to suffer undue vilification: a wave of Japan-bashing in the 1980s and early 1990s, replete with conspiracy theories about the Japanese elite pretending to run a Western market economy and democracy but actually preparing for its return to global domination, threatened the cohesion of the group even more than the exaggerated bashing of Russia's political evolution does today. There is every reason to stop exaggerating about Russia's differences from the rest of the Group, and instead to build on the opportunities inherent in the essentially sound fit that has existed and continues to exist between the Group and Russia.
Ira Straus is U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.