L’Aquila, Itlay: The idea at first was simple power politics. Economic troubles prompted the most powerful democracies to convene a summit meeting to determine the course of the world, or at least as much of it as they could.
It worked well enough that they did it again the next year. And the next. More countries joined, and more began banging on the door. Eventually, the so-called Group of Eight (G-8) started what might be considered auxiliary clubs.
Click here to listen audio on G-8 Summit
And that was how they ended up with a meeting on Thursday that was actually dubbed the G-8+5+1+5. Seriously.
The group’s 35th gathering is such a sprawling event that the leaders of about 40 countries travelled here for it. No longer can just eight powers drive every decision. US President Barack Obama headed one meeting with 17 leaders for what he called a Major Economies Forum because there would be no point grappling with climate change without, say, China and India.
So, whither is the G-8 in a Group of Twenty (G-20) world? What relevance does the G-8 have when it seemingly cannot take landmark action without enlisting others? Does it make sense for thousands of officials, diplomats, lobbyists, public relations people and journalists to descend on a single overwhelmed town each year when maybe a simple videoconference call might do? Or if it is still meaningful, then does it have the right membership in a changing world?
Future sceptical: Leaders from various nations at the G-8 meeting in L’Aquila, Italy on Thursday. Atul Yadav / PTI
“Look at the amount of effort, of carbon, of cost that went into this,” said Kumi Naidoo of South Africa, co-chairman of the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, an advocacy organization, looking at the large tents set up for the news media, complete with air-conditioning, wireless Internet and land lines.
“The G-8 is an elite cocktail, a self-appointed group,” he added. “I think it’s an anachronism, and consistently undermining the work of other multilateral initiatives.”
These are questions that come up every year, but more so lately as economic and political power shifts.
The G-20, which includes the eight and an array of nations from Argentina to Indonesia to Turkey, has emerged in recent months as a potent forum addressing the global recession.
Former US President George W. Bush summoned the G-20 leaders to Washington in November to figure out how to revive the world economy. Obama joined the group when it met in London in April and invited it to meet again in September in Pittsburgh.
As a first-time G-8 participant, Obama seems to have a sceptical eye, uncertain about its suitability as a vehicle for solving the world’s problems.
This year’s meeting produced statements on the economy, Iran, West Asia and other topics but made few breakthroughs, and Obama’s aides cast it as a mere way station between G-20 meetings.
“We view this meeting and this discussion as a midpoint between the London G-20 summit and the Pittsburgh G-20 summit,” said Mike Froman, the president’s chief negotiator.
Indeed, Obama concluded that it was pointless to talk about climate change among just the eight powers, so he invited nine others on Thursday. Developing countries such as China and India agreed to make “meaningful” reductions in greenhouse gases but refused to accept the specific targets for 2050 sought by the US and Europe.
Obama cast that as victory enough, until discussions resume at the G-20. “We’ve made a good start,” he said, “but I am the first one to acknowledge that progress on this issue will not be easy.”
The developing countries of the G-20 say the days of the smaller club are numbered. “The G-8 is over as a political decision group,” Celso Amorim, Brazil’s foreign minister, said last month at a conference in Paris. It “represents nothing at all”, he said, adding that “you simply can’t ignore emerging countries such as Brazil, China or India”.
Still, talk of restructuring or scrapping the G-8 invariably runs into resistance from current members. At a news conference on opening night, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, the host, said the summit meeting was “ideal for building confidence and cordiality, for creating friendships and deepening friendships”. He added, “We call each other by our first names and not our last names” and gather “at the same informal table”.
There is no doubt Italy pulled off a tour de force of last-minute organization, spending $75 million to transform a police training complex in an earthquake zone into an Olympic-style village, complete with high-quality espresso bars and wicker lawn sets. Cooks are preparing 25,000 meals over three days, and 3,700 journalists registered to attend.
It is a far cry from the original meeting outside Paris in 1975, when leaders of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan inaugurated the Group of Six.
Canada joined two years later, and it became the Group of Seven, an organization without organization—no headquarters, no bylaws, no staff, just a rotating leadership to hold the annual meeting.
President Bill Clinton got Russia admitted in 1997, and others started attending as observers. By this year, there was a regular meeting with China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa, now dubbed the Group of Five.
Attending his 21st summit meeting, John Kirton, director of the G-8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, said the group would evolve with additional formats involving more countries. But he said the core eight still represented unrivalled political and economic power and had the duty to weigh in on issues of democracy that others could not. “There’s a lot that the eight can do that the others can’t,” he said. “You’ll always need the G-8.”
©2009/THE NEW YORK TIMES
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed to this story.