Andrew F. Cooper
Associate Director and Distinguished Fellow, CIGI
The task of labelling the G8 is starting in earnest. What the host country would like to term the event is as the summit of principles. Leaving aside the situational difficulty of a scandal-ridden Italian government, led by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, playing up the role of ethics in public life, there are deeper structural reasons why this branding effort may fall flat.
At the declaratory level all of the state officials are being careful to say that the G8 and the G20 are not in competition. Yet at the same time it is clear that the G20 has become the core forum for dealing with the financial crisis. The G8 is not where the action on the instrumental agenda. Rather it is a way station to the bigger event in the form of the G20. Indeed the announcement by the Obama administration that the G20 will be held in Pittsburgh on 25 September has reduced the authority and influence of the L’Aquila summit.
To grab back its role as a summit that matters, the G8 must focus on some fundamental questions. Given the ascendancy of the G20 it must make a decision whether or not its rationale for existence stems from its performance as a caucus for northern developed democratic countries. Russia’s presence complicates this task. But it is only as a caucus that the G8’s continued existence in current unreformed form makes sense. It cannot be assumed that other countries will listen to the G8’s pronouncements on issues such as Iran, North Korea, and climate change to name just a few. But the G8 – or perhaps more accurately the G7 – will at least get some symbolic benefits if it can speak in like minded fashion on such topics.
The other option is for the G8 to compete more openly for the status as the hub of global governance beyond the immediate financial crisis. As I have noted elsewhere this approach allows some of the G8’s strengths (and the G20’s weaknesses) to come to the fore. The agenda of the G20 is very technical, not the forté of all leaders. The G20 is also quite diffuse in membership, especially with the insertion of a couple of extra European countries.
The G8 therefore could potentially grab some of its hub role back. To do so, however, it needs to position itself as the pivotal site for a new condominium between the G8/7 and the core big emerging powers. This latter group has taken on its own collective identity through the work of the Heiligendamm Process in which the major north and southern powers have engaged in a structured dialogue on specific topics such as development, R&D and investment.
What is most salient about the 2009 G8 is that it may well be the last time that the G8 has this choice. The caucus notion will be reinforced not just by design but by default if the big emerging powers found their own alternative caucuses most notably the BRICs. The linking option might still remain open but it is likely that the choice will close/expire, unless approaches such as the HP are given fuller attention as a device to help the process of convergence not divergence blossom in a time of summit transition.Disclaimer: This blog is solely intended to spur discussion, while the opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI, Chatham House or their respective Boards of Directors.