international analysis and commentary

G8: time for a rethink


To misquote Douglas MacArthur, ‘Old institutions don’t die, they just fade away.’ Sadly in international relations most organizations that have outlived their usefulness continue to solider on, saved only by bureaucratic inertia and the fierce vested interests of their out-of-touch secretariat in keeping them afloat, however irrelevant they have become. Presently, there is little doubt that the world has passed most of the post-World War II institutions by, due to the simple fact that we don’t live on a planet characterized by bipolar competition anymore. Institutions founded to check Soviet influence in Europe are having a dashed hard time coping with the current global economic meltdown.

This is generally true for the bevy of post-1945 organizations – the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund – but it is an even more current club that seems destined to be the first to actually become extinct rather than to continue to limp along.  Regardless of the outcomes of the L’Aquila Group of Eight (G8) meeting, what in the world is the point of securing an organization that at its best is so 1980s?

Why it worked
In the mid-1980s the then G7 meetings (post-Soviet Russia was admitted more recently) were perhaps the most important series of gatherings in the western world. The G7 had a very specific mission: coordinating and reaching broad consensus for dealing with global financial imbalances. This specific and measurable agenda allowed its members to dig beneath the surface of international economic events, for example coordinating dollar-yen imbalances between the US and Japan. There is little doubt that grandiosity and overreach are prime symptoms of an institution’s lack of true importance. By not trying to do everything, the G7 managed to do something.

If its specific mission was a sign of strength, so was its membership. As the great Woody Allen has said, half of the reason for success in life is just showing up; in terms of the G7 the right people showed up. In the 1980s, the economic powers that mattered globally were the US, Japan and Europe (Germany). The G7 had the right membership in terms of global economic power for the times. It was neither a debating society, such as the UN, which included everyone, nor an overly exclusive grouping, meaning that little could practically be done.

Why it must evolve
Fast forward to today. The headline goals of the L’Aquila meeting were “global standards” for the world economy, food security and dealing with climate change; in other words, a lot.

However, while a cozy grouping of a few advanced Western economies worked wonders in the 1980s, global power relations do not look remotely the same 30 years after the G7’s heyday. Think of the G8’s list of headline problems for the moment: the global economy, climate change and arresting world hunger. Can any of these mammoth undertakings meet success if the group’s membership formally excludes the world’s rising powers (China, India, and Brazil)? Why in the world would any of these countries want to help an organization, from which they are partly excluded, succeed? 

In fact, the only path to salvation for the G8 lies in becoming a G-14, adding enough new members (Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India, China) to represent the changed global power realities, while at the same time having fewer members than the overly cumbersome G20. This G8 was actually organized as a series of “concentric circles”: the second day amounted to a G14.

Yet, the limited results of L’Aquila confirm the G8’s general problems. On rescuing the global economy, Germany wanted discussions to begin on how to unwind the world’s Keynesian programs (especially America’s) just at the moment when Washington, London and Paris were considering even further packages to stimulate global demand. As White House officials made clear, it was the old G8 members (especially Mrs. Merkel), and not the six emerging powers (China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico and Egypt) allowed to participate at the edges of the formal G8 meeting, that stood in the way of a more coordinated global response to the crisis.
On climate change, the problem had to do less with the G8’s membership than with specific policy differences – as the format was indeed even wider than a G14. Upon hearing news of serious riots breaking out in China’s restive Xinjiang province, Hu Jintao caught the first flight home to deal with the domestic crisis. In his absence, a looming deal between the developed and rising powers over climate change completely unraveled, both because of the G8 Western powers’ lack of seriousness, as well as China’s absence at the highest level.

The new powers were not taken in by the G8 agreement to (somehow) cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, a timeframe so far away that it has little meaning at all. Further, the baseline for these cuts varied among the participants: Germany wanted a 1990 yardstick, while the Obama administration favored today as the baseline. So the West is measuring different years to make cuts to meet targets that will not come into effect until… I am likely dead (and I am a relatively young man at present). Given this charade, and without China in the room, the rising powers refused to commit themselves to anything concrete on global warming (except for the general cap of 2°C), as the West’s promises of economic aid to help them combat greenhouse gas emissions had proven to be so much (pardon the pun) hot air. We will see in Copenhagen.

The G8’s meager results contrast mightily with the limited but real success of the first leg of President Obama’s foreign trip; his tentative agreement with President Medvedev over significant cuts (aiming at around one-third of the total) in both the Russian and American nuclear arsenals. Faced with the myriad of issues on which they don’t entirely agree – Russia’s influence over its ‘near abroad,’ the Iranian nuclear program and energy issues – the two presidents did not survey the difficult field, sigh, and then go home discouraged. Rather, wisely, they settled for what they could get: the desire of both sides to significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals, given acceptable conditions. Better still, they did so putting forward genuine measurable benchmarks, and a time limit (this December) that is far enough away to genuinely negotiate, but close enough to remember. This is how foreign policy should be conducted, over specific issues with the right people in the room to move forward. The various “Gs”, and other behind-the-curve international institutions, should take note.
We should instead keep our eye on the ball: in order to work well, global organizations must have specific, limited agendas and a membership that reflects the power realities of today.