G-8 or G-Zero? Why the West No Longer Sets the Global Agenda

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

G8 foreign ministers (L-R), Koichiro Gemba of Japan, Guido Westerwelle of Germany, Sergei Lavrov of Russia, British Foreign Secretary William Hague, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Alain Juppe of France, John Baird of Canada, Giulio Terzi Di Sant'Agata of Italy, and Catherine Ashton of the European Union, pose for a group photo on April 11, 2012 in Washington, DC. Secretary Clinton hosted this year's G8 Foreign Ministers conference at the Blair House

The spectacle of some of the most powerful leaders in the world gathering at Camp David on Friday for the G-8 summit and then for this weekend’s NATO anniversary in Chicago won’t disguise the fact that things seem to be gradually falling apart. These once mighty symbols of international leadership appear almost paralyzed before the tides of economic, financial and political change. The opening of William Butler Yeats’ 1921 poem that found the best devoid of conviction and the worst filled with passionate intensity reads as if crafted as an elegant introduction to an analysis of the global political moment.

(MORE: The G8 Summit at Camp David: This Time, It’s Important)

The G-8 convenes as the euro zone is threatening to unravel, most immediately in the showdown over Germany’s insistence that Greece either swallow the toxic austerity medicine that could kill its economy or see itself banished from the euro zone, potentially triggering global financial losses on the order of $1 trillion. But the forum is unlikely to settle the fate of Greece, much less the underlying tension over policies of austerity to cut spending debt and stimulus policies to revive growth.

When the G-7 was founded in the 1980s its goal was to gather the leaders of the world’s most successful, dynamic economies to plot pathways to further prosperity. Russia was later added to its guest list as a reward for casting off communism rather than as a vote of confidence in its economy. But today, confidence in the group is low. Few seem to believe that the leaders of the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada are equipped to tackle the problems facing the world economy. (They effectively admitted their limitations in 2008 when a far wider forum, the Group of 20 — which included the major emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil, Turkey and others — to tackle the global financial meltdown.)

Those gathering at Camp David on Friday are lacking in both fiscal resources and political authority to take far-reaching steps that might turn the tide.  Each member country faces massive domestic problems whose consequences, given the connections established by globalized capital markets,  could have profound consequences for many of the others. But there are sharp policy differences among them over how to address those challenges, making the G-8 seem somehow less than the sum of its parts.

The U.S., still first among equals in the G-8, has become increasingly ungovernable, locked into a pattern of long-term political gridlock that may not be resolved by November’s presidential election. Japan’s ever anemic economy was dealt a body blow by last year’s tsunami and nuclear crises. The northern Europeans are caught between a center-right consensus on austerity and growing calls from Washington and France’s newly elected center-left government for a growth-oriented alternative. That clamor may grow louder in the months ahead amid a mounting backlash from the resurgent left (and also the far-right, which has captured a smaller, but significant share of the working- and middle-class anti-austerity vote in a number of countries). Italy is the biggest of the continent’s basket-case economies. Russia is an authoritarian energy exporter in a state of open strategic competition with the West. Allow Canada a moment of uncharacteristic smugness, having done rather nicely in weathering the financial crisis as a result of its habit of sensible policy choices.

(MORE: European Voters Have Rejected Austerity — So What Happens Next?)

“G-Zero” has been the buzzword in foreign policy circles in the past week, as risk analyst and Eurasia Group president Ian Bremmer promotes his new book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. His key point is that the global balances of power have shifted in ways that leave no single center of power or poles between which countries are forced to choose. Instead, the most adaptive countries are those whose strategic, security and economic partnerships are diverse — think Brazil or Turkey. Bremmer explains:

“The United States will remain the sole superpower for the foreseeable future, but war-weary, under-employed, debt-plagued voters will reject an activist foreign policy. Europeans won’t fill the vacuum; they’re busy fighting over how best to save the euro zone. China and other emerging powers won’t be much help. They face too many complex challenges at home to accept new risks and burdens abroad. This leadership void won’t last forever, but the problem won’t be solved this year or next.”

The G-8 might also once have functioned as a kind of power caucus within NATO and other international forums, shaping policy for dealing with emerging political and security crises. But on that front, too, the G-8 is unlikely give a decisive lead. For one thing, Russia is substantially at odds with key Western powers over the primary security challenges currently on the international agenda such as the crisis in Syria and the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Even without Russia’s vigorous defense of the Assad regime, there’s little appetite in Western capitals for any sort of direct military intervention, which could mire NATO countries in a protracted, messy civil war. Washington will hope to do better in keeping the Europeans on board for the oil and financial sanctions that put the biggest squeeze on Iran, although that’s a consensus already established among them — and maintaining it will depend less on any conversation in the G-8 than what transpires in next week’s talks in Baghdad between the P5+1 group (the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China). One change, in that respect, will be the absence of Nicolas Sarkozy and the debut of his successor, French President François Hollande: While Hollande has formally endorsed France’s standing position on Iran, he’s highly unlikely to play the activist hard-liner role of his predecessor. And the visit to Tehran last week, in a private capacity, by former prime minister from Hollande’s Socialist Party, Michel Rocard, raised speculation that Paris may now be more inclined to encourage the diplomacy of which Sarkozy had been openly skeptical.

(MORE: What the Election of François Hollande Means for France, Europe and the World)

At the NATO summit in Chicago, Afghanistan will be the top item on the agenda. The improbable effort to impose the will of the West on the Hindu Kush is nearing its predictably messy end, although NATO is not about to acknowledge failure despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The Wall Street Journal on Thursday reported an uptick in Taliban attacks in the very areas ostensibly cleared by the “surge” ordered by President Obama in 2009. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the idea that NATO will leave behind a stable Afghanistan to be secured against the Taliban by indigenous security forces paid for by the West. The Afghan economy is simply too puny to sustain the armed forces NATO is building; the Afghan government requires $4 billion in aid a year to keep its soldiers in the field, and Washington is hoping to persuade the Europeans to pay their share. But Washington’s efforts the past decade and more to get the Europeans to spend more on their own defense and share more of NATO’s burden have floundered. It is difficult to imagine them reaching into dramatically diminished national coffers to pay for an iffy gendarme force in Central Asia.

Defense Secretary Robert gates, before his retirement last year, warned that the Europeans risked making NATO irrelevant by their reluctance to expand their defense spending. But the reality is that spending on NATO, and expeditionary warfare, are simply not priorities in the minds of the Western European electorates. Sarkozy may have hoped that taking the lead in orchestrating an air campaign to rid Libya of the odious regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi would help get him reelected, but French voters clearly weren’t interested in his military exploits in the Maghreb. In the era of Sarkozy’s predecessor, President Jacques Chirac, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine complained of the dominance of the American “hyperpower,” and made a buzzword of “multipolarity” – a world order in which there was no single dominant powers but instead a balance created by a number of different power centers. A quick glance at the G-8 and NATO events this weekend will confirm that Vedrine’s wish is being realized, although ‘G-Zero’ may not be quite what he’d had in mind.

MORE: Dismal Numbers from China and India Indicate Further Weakening of Global Economy

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