Where the big boys are


G8 SUMMIT:THE LATEST SUMMIT bringing together the Group of Eight world leaders was seen by some commentators as historic, as great powers rallied their wealth and arms behind the Arab people and helped to promote the spread of Western values across the world.

Others saw it as a pointless and costly vanity project for leaders of nations in decline that have been marginalised by the rise of China and other big, industrialising nations.

Some answers in that debate should emerge in the coming year when France, proud host of the recent G8 summit in Deauville, hands over to the United States, some of whose officials have been sceptical of the group’s usefulness.

The White House has not set a date for next year’s G8 summit. Since President Barack Obama’s predecessor George W Bush hosted the first summit of the Group of 20, which brings in China, India, Brazil and others, three years ago that has been Washington’s favoured global forum. So it may all but merge the G8 into the G20 gathering.

After 24 hours of talk on the Normandy coast last month, it seemed US attitudes to the G8 might have been warmed by a summit that offered financial help to new Arab democracies and rallied Russia, an often awkward post-Cold War addition, to the cause of ousting Libya’s Muammar Gadafy.

“This has been quite a good G8 and, in many respects, it has underscored what is best about the G8,” said a senior US official. “We are strong proponents of the G20 as the premier forum for international economic coordination. But there is something about the G8 and a small group of leaders who deal with each other across a wide range of issues on a very regular basis . . . It builds a strong relationship with them and it really came out here.”

The G8’s critics are far from convinced, however. Timothy Garton Ash, a political commentator, wrote in the Guardianthat the Deauville summit is a monumental waste of time and money: “If the G8 did not exist today, no one would dream of inventing it. Its core business, the management of the global economy, cannot properly be discussed without the presence at the top table of countries like China, India and Brazil.”

Obama should focus on merging the G8 into the G20 and improving the functioning of that forum, he said.

Yet among its admirers, John Kirton of Toronto University, whose G8 Research Group tracks the forum’s effectiveness, said it was needed “now more than ever”. He compared its aid for Egypt and Tunisia to its role in Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“If there was ever a time for the G8 after the post-Cold War victory it is now, and the Deauville summit got the job done,” he said. “This is as transformational and historic as that.”

The calendar of the coming year’s events may be revealing. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, for whom such gatherings are welcome platforms as he campaigns for re-election, has set this year’s G20 for Cannes in November, six months after the G8.

Obama may prefer a G8 that is essentially a preparatory caucus for the G20 summit to held in Mexico. Last year Canada hosted both G8 and G20 summits on succeeding days.

Heather Conley, director of the Europe programme at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, was surprised Obama agreed to make two visits to France this year.

“I think you’ll see perhaps the same difficult decision next year, should we do a formal G8 summit?” she said, noting discomfort among European leaders at their diluted weight in the G20.

“We’re in this, I fear prolonged, transition period where the G8 doesn’t feel like it’s got the right combination but the G20 has not matured into a coherent body,” said Conley.

One senior European official at Deauville said the G8 still has a role as its members can speak more freely, though the G20 has more power: “If you really want to make something happen in the world, you have to go to the G20.”

The world has changed dramatically since the group was formed. France hosted the first summit in 1975, when President Valery Giscard d’Estaing invited peers from the United States, Japan, Britain and West Germany to Rambouillet to seek consensus on global capital flows and soaring oil prices.

After Italy and Canada joined the next year, the G7 accounted for two thirds of the world’s economic output. Now, however, even with Russia, which was added in 1998 in hopes of fostering its post-Soviet democracy, the G8 has only about 40 per cent of world gross domestic product. China’s economy has surpassed all but that of the United States.

But Daniel Schwanen at Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation said: “You’re talking about very rich countries, with two thirds or more of the military power in the world ... That makes it still a credible and viable institution, and one that need not stand in opposition to the G20 at all.”

The point is to get together and talk, said one French diplomat said in Deauville. “We know we have diverging views on many issues. Meetings at the highest level are a way of harmonising our positions, even if a decision does not emerge right away.”

But Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergey Ryabkov, made clear that Moscow sees such summits as important to pushing Kremlin policies.

“The G20 is not an alternative to the G8,” he said in Deauville. “We need to use the opportunities and formats we have, and hence multiply the channels to promote our national interests. So we will keep on playing on all of these chessboards.”