The G8, the group that houses the eight most powerful countries in the world, is meant to (in theory) get the most powerful heads of state together for them to discuss the present and future of the world in which, like it or not, they have a decisive influence on. But lately, there has been more misunderstanding, conflicts and tension than anything else in their summits, whose only utility has been to show the world how disconnected and clueless the authorities are, especially when it comes to working together.
With the war in Iraq fading from a position of talk of the day to a hopeless, secondary routine, other subjects have emerged for the 8 big shots to talk about. And in every one of these subjects, all they do is disagree. Global warming, free trade and farming subsidies, middle east, and now the latest brawl with Russia; not in a single one of them, the rich folks can make a decision. In addition, in every summit the hordes of anti-globalization and anti-war activists organize bigger and bigger protests that more than usually end in violence and embarrassment for the local police, which tries harder and harder to make a Fort Knox out of the venue where the summit will take place.
With all these problems surrounding the annual summit, and the usual result of empty promises and half-baked agreements, it’s time for us to consider: Wouldn’t it be doing more harm than good? Even better: Would it be doing anything at all?
Take Russia, for an example. The country was included in the group in great part for its power and obvious influence on Asia and western Europe. Moreover, the country has been, recently, an alternative (along with China) for the west to reach the middle east, since they have a relatively warm relationship (and some shady businesses, we must admit) with some countries in the region, which is better than what the US and Europe have today. However, not only the west doesn’t use this resource but also doesn’t waste an opportunity to get in some petty fight with them, such as the American attempt in 2005 to suspend Russia from the group, for threatening democracy on its territory. Russia, on the other hand, does very little to put down the fire, with Putin provoking the western powers whenever he can.
So when the summit comes, the world sees nothing but an awkward back and forth of polite criticism, like husband and wife picking on each other by the dinner table, worrying not to let the kids feel the tension. And this year, it probably won’t be different. With most of the western media shouting that a new cold war is about to start, the world expects a demonstration of power by presidents Bush and Putin, adding up to the awkwardness of having both in the same room. It’s not a stretch to say that not much will be solved or agreed upon with this atmosphere. In the end of the day, what was the point of adding Russia to the team anyway?
If Russia wasn’t in the line up for the meeting, though, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The currents of thought inside the group, and their unwillingness to reach an agreement, are enough to stall any attempt to get something out of the summit. On one side, there’s the US, which recently has been trying to make every G8 summit a stage for them to announce their international policies, as if the other members were ready to simply adopt them. Canada used to be prone to back America, but lately they have been more neutral, leaving the job for Britain. On the opposing side, there are the other Europeans (France, Germany and Italy), who usually curb the American enthusiasm by giving their restrictions to whatever they propose (which is, in turn, usually aimed solely at favoring America). On the middle lies Japan, the lonely Asian representative trying to voice its interests with all this mess. From the days of G7, especially after the cold war ended, not much seemed to be solved between them. The scenario is definitely not better today.
As if this wasn’t enough, there’s the fact that the world has changed quite a bit since the 90’s, when the last significant change in the group (the addition of Russia) happened. China, for example, is already the 4th biggest economy in the world, arguably a global player in economy and international affairs. International affairs, by the way, is something in which China is putting more time and effort lately, expanding its reach in Asia and Africa, and hungry for more deals and partnerships. But we see absolutely no sign of China in the G8 summit, unless the 8 powers are discussing how to deal with the rising power, as if it was an enemy. Other countries have risen to become way more influent than before in group, if not alone. Countries such as India, Mexico, and Brazil have been talking louder in the international scene and forming pressure groups (often along with China) on the UN and WTO. Even though they’re not G8 material, they do have an increasing influence on some of the key topics of discussion on the group’s table, such as global warming and free trade.
The consequence of this isolationism in the G8 is that it ends up being perceived by many in the developing world as a fraternity of rich kids gathering to find out ways of keeping the poor kids on a leash. This would probably have worse consequences for both the G8 and their critics, if something relevant was actually decided in these summits. To make matters worse, other attempts of uniting the rich countries to discuss and tackle the current issues of the world are doing a better job than the G8, notably the Davos and the OECD summits. While the OECD has more members and better defined structure and goals, Davos has the true global players of the world, whether they are CEO’s, non-governmental or official leaders (eventually a pop star or an actor might show up, but they don’t diminish the importance of the event). You can say that not much is decided in these meetings too, and you wouldn’t be too far from the truth. But by having more voices (in numbers and diversity) and better organized structure, while not allowing the debates to become a stage for inter-governmental rantings, both meetings do a better job than the G8 meeting, even if it’s not quite a brilliant job.
With that said, what are the expectations for this year’s summit? The prime subject, officially, is global warming, for which a decision on a serious framework is being stimulated by the German head-of-state, Angela Merkel. And it doesn’t look like it will be a good discussion; on the eve of the meeting, George Bush announced that the US will lead a “long-term” effort to reduce greenhouse gases aimed at substituting the Kyoto Protocol when it expires, in 2012, surprising the world and complicating the diplomatic work to be done on the summit. The second most important subject, likely to become the first as the meeting goes, is the construction of a missile defense system by the US on eastern Europe, which sent Vladimir Putin through the roof, prompting him to make some unfriendly statements which caused most of the international media, especially in the west, to say that we’re on the verge of a new cold war, or at least a new arms race, as Putin said himself. Condolezza Rice’s declarations on Putin’s statements, that he “seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era,” definitely won’t help.
Another two smaller issues are likely to gain importance and cause some tension in the summit this year: One is the decision on the status of the Serbian province of Kosovo, in which Russia once again has a different opinion of the rest of the group. Russia refuses to back the UN resolution on the issue and arguments that the new resolution to be proposed in the UN, granting Kosovo independence, is a unilateral attempt of solving the Baltic problem on western terms, without allowing Serbia and Kosovo to cut their own deal, while the west stands by its proposal. The other one is a recent territorial bash between Russia and Japan over four islands seized by Russia in 1945, after the war. The Kuril islands (or Northern territory, for Japan) are not likely to spur any harsh statements or fighting between Russia and Japan as both sides are willing to cooperate, but with the spicy agenda that is already set up for the summit, territorial bickering is the last thing the G8 needs.
Not to mention an outside subject, known for the G8 leaders, that seems to barge its way in every year: The protests. They started early this year in Germany, more precisely in June 2, in Rostock, where it escalated to violence, leaving nearly a thousand injured, 433 of them officers. As usual, a heavy security scheme is ready to welcome the leaders while shutting up and kicking out protesters.
So far, one thing is certain: The world is not exactly on its best shape for a G8 summit this year. Or maybe it’s the G8 summit that is no longer in shape for the world of today.