Published in The Canberra Times, 7 July 2009 (PDF)
Republished in the New Straits Times (Kuala Lumpur), 15 July 2009
A hectic sequence of state banquets, photo opportunities and diplomatic excitement followed by a declaration as solemn as meaningless – that’s all we can expect of the G8 summit in Italy this week. We know this because we’ve been there before. After 34 years of G-something summits, it’s time someone told these self-proclaimed world leaders that their time is over.
The greatest disasters often begin with a good idea. If you wait long enough, you will see how “wisdom becomes nonsense” as Mephistopheles explains in Goethe’s Faust. This is the story of the G8, and the devil could not have written a better script.
The original idea behind the Group of Eight, or the Group of Six as it was initially, was to summon a small number of statesmen for informal talks. The 1970s world economy was rattled by the oil crisis. Geopolitics was all about the confrontation between the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies. The G6 and later the G7 were part of the West’s response to these economic and security threats.
As an institution of its time, the G7 made perfect political and strategic sense. A forum of the world’s dominant Western democracies was the obvious place to discuss the oil crisis and the Cold War. Driven by people such as French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the G7 resembled a gentlemen’s club, not a formalised institution. Tellingly, the first meeting took place in the small French chateau of Rambouillet, not in a high-tech Paris conference centre.
The bloc-to-bloc confrontation of the past is being replaced by a new multi-polar order. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union has disappeared, Giscard d’Estaing and Schmidt are enjoying their retirement, China and India are emerging as new superpowers, but the G8 still exists. Confronted with a new world order and crises for which it was never intended, it struggles for relevance. It is becoming obvious that the G8 has outlived its usefulness.
Going back through G8 communiqués of the past, it is clear how over-ambition and incapacity can go hand in hand. The 1992 summit expressed concern over excessive public deficits and rising levels of debt – to no avail. In 1997 the leaders stated “the importance of avoiding exchange rates that could lead to the re-emergence of large external imbalances”, but the US trade deficit kept ballooning regardless. In 2001, the G8 said “we underscore the importance of focusing on steps to increase opportunities for trade”, yet the world did not need to hold its breath for a breakthrough in World Trade Organisation talks.
The G8 record on international security issues is no better either. At the 1995 summit, the leaders expressed their desire for an improved early warning system to alert the United Nations to the impending crises. This sounded good although the people of Darfur or the Zimbabweans would not have noticed any difference. It is questionable whether the G7 leaders really believed North Korea would listen when they urged it not to withdraw from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 1993. We know what has happened since.
Time and again the G8 has shown itself unable to let action follow its finely crafted declarations. But this has not stopped it from promising to eradicate poverty, stop climate change and bring peace to the Middle East. The list of good intentions declared at G8 summits is endless.
It is no coincidence that G8 summits do not deliver on their promises because the G8 was never meant to deliver on anything. It is an informal institution with the limited goal of facilitating an exchange of opinions between heads of government. Not less, but definitely not more.
That the G8 was a product of its time is clear just by looking at its member states. If a similar consultation process was begun today, no one in his right mind would think that a country such as Italy had to be part of it. The only thing its Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi can bring to this year’s summit is entertainment value. Nor is it clear what advice British Prime Minister Gordon Brown can offer on the global economy after presiding over his own country’s economic downfall.
The G8 deserves a special mention in the history books for its role in the 1970s and ‘80s, but only to the history books does it belong. In its current form, the G8 has managed to be even weaker than the sum of its parts. Wisdom has become nonsense, and the wise thing to do now is not to make the G8 bigger or more representative but to abolish it.