The Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries that began its meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, on Wednesday see themselves as an international directory of nations that run the world. The G-8—the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Italy and Canada—and their “outreach group” of India, China, Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa represent the heftier portion of the world’s GDP and most of its clout. But what role do they really play in shaping our future? Or, what role can they play?
It is fashionable to speak of our era as one of transition. But a literal definition would describe almost any era as transitional. Our problems are deeper. What is happening is a destruction of the old world order and the shape of things to come is either not visible, or too scary to imagine.
The elements of the old order that are collapsing are around us—the nuclear order, the trading system and probably even the currency system. But these major countries have shown little inclination to play a system-shaping role. Most of their meetings seem to end in lengthy communiques and pictures of the leaders driving around in golf carts.
In the past decades, the nuclear order as defined by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was the order of the day. After getting the world community to extend the treaty ‘in perpetuity’, the ‘nuclear haves’—the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China—have done precious little to shore it up.
Instead, it is unravelling with members such as North Korea and Iran cheating on it, abetted by a non-signatory, Pakistan. The Indo-US nuclear deal perhaps anticipates its collapse by putting up a structure that honours the spirit, rather than the letter of the NPT.
The world trading system, too, seems to be unable to move ahead. A report in Mint on Tuesday has the European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson saying that the United States, India and Brazil have lowered their ambitions for a global trade agreement.
For five years, the organization has tried to get a new trade deal going, but prolonged wrangling over farm trade and market access for industrial goods has led to a deadlock and could lead to a collapse of the system.
The issue of global warming is the most visible (and perceptible) manifestation of the failure of the old world order to address urgent global problems.
The Kyoto protocol has been lying dead in the water and the failure of the United States to ratify it is only part of the reason why it is so.
Amid this global disorder, the G-8 has not lacked ambition in articulating an expanded agenda. In the past few years, the body has spoken on a number of issues—promoting democracy, bridging the digital divide, forgiving African debt, preventing climate change and so on.
But action on the ground seems to have been less than impressive. In all fairness, the outfit is an informal body and does not have the coercive power to enforce anything.
The group evolved from an informal consultation between finance officials of the developed world in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.
After that it functioned as a group of western countries and Japan. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a short internship, Russia joined the Group in 1997 and it became G-8. A few years later it added a key “outreach group” of countries which could not be ignored in any endeavour to run the world.
The one great hope for this summit is climate change. On 16 February, at the meeting of the G-8+5 Climate Dialogue in Washington D.C, a non-binding agreement was reached which led off from a declaration that accepted that climate change was “beyond doubt” a man-made phenomenon. The meeting recommended a system of emission limits and carbon trading that could supersede the Kyoto protocol. The United Kingdom, the other European countries and Japan have been strong on climate change for a while.
The big success now is in getting countries such as the United States, China and India on board. The United States is the largest polluter and till recently, it’s ideologues refused to accept that climate change was man-made. On the eve of the G-8 summit, President George W. Bush came up with a proposal that the United States and 14 other top polluting countries work out long-term solutions to the issue. However, as of now, the United States still holds out against the idea of setting stringent new emission limits.
Amid the many distempers that afflict the world, climate change appears to be the most universal, and hence the chances for the world community to act on it are the highest. Perhaps if the G-8+5 can show a practical unity of purpose there, they could also do so elsewhere to make the world a more prosperous and safer place.
Manoj Joshi keeps a close eye on geopolitics from his perch as the strategic affairs editor of the Hindustan Times. You can respond to the column by writing to email@example.com