Why the G-8 Should Never Meet Again

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The G-8 wraps up its 37th conclave May 27 at the French seaside resort of Deauville. By now, you may have seen some of the gathering’s glitzy snaps. Two seem to define the occasion: one of President Obama and Europe’s top potentates taking a chummy stroll along the Normandy coast, the other of pregnant French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy standing head and shoulders above her dowdy continental counterparts. I don’t think it takes great foresight to guess which image will be better remembered in the weeks to come.

And that’s not a bad thing because, as a global conclave, the G-8 has become almost entirely irrelevant. It was originally formed in 1975, in the wake of an alarming international oil crisis, as a forum for the West’s greatest economies to meet and steer global policy without the burdensome nuisance of the U.N. or other more democratic international institutions. For a long time, the annual summit seemed the place from which the world was truly governed — a resurrection of an older Western imperial guard (plus Japan). Not surprisingly, it was hated by many. Just a decade ago, the G-8 summit in Genoa was the site of truly epic scenes of rioting and mayhem as anti-globalization protesters attempted to storm the gathering, targeting what they thought was the progenitor of all the world’s capitalistic injustices. Fast forward ten years later: at Deauville, there was greater fury in the waves of the placid English Channel. How things have changed.

In the age of the BRICs — a Goldman Sachs monicker that has stuck for the combined rising clout of Brazil, Russia, India and China — it’s not controversial to suggest the G-8 has gone past its shelf-life. President Obama has already hailed the G-20, where all the BRICs are in attendance (only Russia is in the G-8), as the “premier forum for global economic coordination.” (Incidentally, the G-20 is also meeting in France later this year, in Cannes.) Sensing the change in the winds, then Brazilian President Lula da Silva declared in 2009 that the G-8 “doesn’t have any reason to exist.” By any metric, he’s right: the G-8 no longer accommodates the world’s biggest or most dynamic economies; the G-8 no longer accounts for all the world’s nuclear weapons; the G-8 doesn’t speak for any particular identity or values — with Russia in the fold, it’s hardly a champion of democracy. So what is it for?

Observers will point to the major achievement of this week’s summit: a massive $40 billion package in promised aid and debt relief to the governments of Egypt and Tunisia, both transitioning toward democracy and away from decades-old dictatorships. For Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it seems the main items on the agenda were all political — consolidating the gains of the Arab Spring and affirming their resolve to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. That these moves were made under the auspices of the G-8 is almost incidental. The same could have been achieved at any number of conferences, NATO meetings, and powwows of European “contact groups” that have taken place in recent months as uprisings rocked the Middle East. Sarkozy cleverly tried to add add a worldly sheen to proceedings, building up the summit with an earlier “eG-8” about the Internet and cyber security, where prominent web guys like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt made appearances. But any real discussion about global Internet regulation without the web behemoth that is China at the table is just a waste of time.

David Bosco, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests where the momentum for the G-8 came from:

If it were up to Washington, the phenomenon of G-8 summitry might well have died this year. The United States is generally less fond of summits than European leaders in any case, and the Americans argued that the G-8 wasn’t really adding anything of value. But the dogged advocacy of the French kept the forum alive. In part, this was about domestic politics. The embattled French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to milk his current role as chair of the G-8 and G-20 for all it’s worth.

Facing abysmal opinion polls, Sarkozy has desperately tried to flex his geo-political muscles this year, most visibly as the main cheerleader of the war in Libya. But that alone can’t paper over the cracks of France’s diminished prestige. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal has been a blow to the last real function of the G-8 — in Bosco’s words, a “de facto steering committee” for the International Monetary Fund, which Strauss-Kahn headed and Europeans long dominated. The fallout of the sex scandal may ultimately put an end to Europe’s preeminence over that bitterly contested institution.

What’s particularly striking about this round of G-8 talks is the dissonance between these countries’ pretensions of global power-broking and the fiascoes and farces that seem to occupy their domestic politics. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, which faded long ago as key global player, is wrapped up in the premier’s sensational, embarrassing peccadilloes. Japan, now the has-been of Asia, still struggles to get to grips — and not with great competence — with the fallout of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is beset by popular opposition to the proposed bailouts of southern European economies, moves that may threaten her government and return the E.U. to yet another bout of existential crisis. And Sarkozy presides over a fractious, hard-bitten France, which, according to polls, seems to have drifted closer into the embrace of the country’s xenophobic far-right. Do any of these countries really deserve to call the shots in this day and age?

Of course, for Europe’s graying old powers, the G-8 still provides one last platform to strut and preen on the world stage. As Timothy Garton Ash, a veteran chronicler of Europe, suggests in the Guardian, Obama and the U.S. should focus on making the G-20 as effective and efficient an apparatus as possible rather than pandering any more to this old clique. The argument to defend the G-8 tends to hinge on the same exact argument to preserve the original post-World War II make-up of the U.N. Security Council — a “celebration of institutional memory,” as a former Russian ambassador at the U.N. once attempted to explain to me. This is bogus. Institutions reform, and when they don’t, they usually die. Let’s put the G-8 out of its misery.