Of course, is a Drinking Club
Here’s a question to test your knowledge of international affairs: What do these places have in common? Birmingham, England; Cologne, Germany; Okinawa, Japan; Genoa, Italy; Kananaskis, Canada; Évian-les-Bains, France; Sea Island, Georgia; Gleneagles, Scotland; St. Petersburg, Russia; Heiligendamm, Germany; Lake Toya, Japan; L’Aquila, Italy; Muskoka, Canada; Deauville, France; Camp David, Maryland; Lough Erne, Northern Ireland.
The answer isn’t that they all have their own mineral waters—although some of them are famous spas. They have all played host to meetings of the G8 club of advanced nations, which, at least for now, is back to being the G7—Vladimir Putin’s Russia having been suspended in disgrace for cheating at cards. If you can’t remember all—or even any—of them, don’t be too hard on yourself. Most of these get-togethers are so tedious and inconsequential that many of the diplomats and journalists who attended them can hardly recall them, either.
So what was, or is, the G8? (Since Russia has only been suspended, rather than ejected, the group still formally exists.) The first G8 meeting took place in 1998, in Birmingham, and the final one was last year, at Lough Erne, in County Fermanagh. That the first and last meetings took place in the United Kingdom was just coincidence. The University of Toronto maintains a G8 Research Center, whose Web site provides all the information you could wish to know, and more, about the organization’s activities and history. Here’s a bit of what the G8 Research Center has to say about it:
With the end of the Cold War and the rapid onset of globalization in finance, production, communications and other areas of daily life, the institutions of the Group of Eight major market-oriented democracies are rapidly emerging as an effective centre of global governance in the contemporary world.At the annual G8 Summit of their leaders and through a host of ministerial forums, they have moved adroitly to address priority challenges in the fields of economics, security and the new generation of transnational or global issues. Amidst the competition to secure their respective national interests, the members of the G8 have arrived at well-tailored and ambitious agreements to shape the new international order in such areas as security, trade policy, human rights, development assistance and macroeconomic co-ordination.
I feel slightly ashamed. How did I manage to miss all these epoch-shaping agreements?
Back in the nineteen-eighties, when I started following the G7 (as it then was), it was still basically a group of finance ministers and central bankers, who got together a few times every year and did some useful, if obscure, work on issues like exchange-rate coördination and trade policy. For instance, in February of 1987, six of the seven members met at the Louvre, in Paris, and agreed to halt the precipitous decline of the dollar. (Italy didn’t take part.) The group had emerged from the economic turmoil of the early seventies, which followed the Nixon Administration’s decision to abandon the gold standard and, effectively, bring to an end the postwar Bretton Woods system. Originally, it was the G5: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, and West Germany. By 1976, Italy and Canada had joined.
Over the years, the economics and finance part of the G7 and G8 continued to work moderately well. It didn’t prevent Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, from falling into a two-decade-long slump; it didn’t stop the Federal Reserve, under Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, from helping to pump up two huge asset-price bubbles; and it didn’t prevent the euro zone from embracing self-defeating austerity policies post-2010. But it did some useful work on debt reduction in the developing world, and encouraged economic development in Africa. Plus, when things were in extremis, it could usually be relied on to take some action. In 2008, during the post-Lehman financial crisis of September and October, for example, the G7 finance ministers promised to “take all necessary steps to unfreeze credit and money markets”—a pledge that was followed up by individual finance ministries and central banks.
Where the G7 and G8 went off track was in getting Presidents and Prime Ministers more involved, setting up elaborate annual summits, and aspiring—or pretending—to be an organization of global governance. All this did was create expectations that couldn’t be fulfilled and spur opposition from those who dismissed it as a rich man’s club, or an agent of globalized capitalism. In 1989, at a summit in Paris marking the bicentennial of the French Revolution, there was the first of many protest marches. The anti-G8 protests culminated in days of rioting, injuries, and one death, at the Genoa summit, in 2001. After that violent debacle, the organizers of the summits tended to choose as their locations remote resorts, where the leaders could be closeted, and from which protesters could be excluded.
The absence of protesters didn’t make much difference. Most of the edicts the summits produced didn’t add up to much. In 2003, the Bush Administration, which had just invaded Iraq, persuaded the other countries to join a “G8 action plan” to combat terrorism. Practically every year, the summiteers would dutifully commit themselves to securing peace in the Middle East, fighting corruption, and confronting climate change.
Last year’s summit, at Lough Erne, a five-star golf resort that is now bankrupt and up for sale, was fairly typical. The official theme of the meeting, chosen by the British, was confronting tax evasion and strengthening financial transparency—very worthy causes. The eight leaders, who included Putin, solemnly pledged to “develop rapidly a multilateral model which will make it easier for governments to find and punish tax evaders.” They said that they would “work to create a common template for multinationals to report to tax authorities where they make their profits and pay their taxes,” and they would “support developing countries to collect the taxes owed them, with access to the global tax information they need.”
Given the gaping gap between rhetoric and action, it’s not exactly surprising that, in recent years, attention has shifted to the G20, which held its first summit in November of 2008, in Washington. That’s mainly a talking shop, too. But at least it gives a notional voice to the billions of people who don’t live in the G7 or G8 countries. China and India are members of the G20, and so are many other big countries that were previously excluded from the annual photo-op.
Ironically, the last G20 summit took place in St. Petersburg, last September, and Putin was the host. (At the time, he was in the United States’s good books for Russia’s help in brokering an agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons.) The next G20 meeting is scheduled for this November, in Brisbane, Australia. It will be interesting to see if Putin attends, and, if he does, whether the other leaders of the G8 will agree to sit down with him.
Photograph by Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty.