This year’s meeting of the world’s most powerful leaders saw a relaxed US President George W. Bush trade jokes, a confident French President Nicolas Sarkozy blow kisses at ecstatic hotel staff and a stiff Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shift uncomfortably around the room.
There were lots of “serious” and “heated” discussions as well, said the meeting’s host, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
But beyond expressions of “deep concern” over spiraling oil prices and the situation in Zimbabwe, and hyperbolic statements on the need to fight climate change and rid Africa from abject poverty, the G8 meeting in Japan was thin on results.
Nothing new there.
One veteran observer, who has been following the G8 since its first-ever meeting 23 years ago, said he could not recall one single earth-shattering decision that was ever made by its participants.
It would be unfair to expect too much from what is essentially an informal forum for discussion for the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia and the US.
While it wishes to send out powerful “signals,” it is not an alternative world government.
Moreover, summits of this kind provide leaders with an excellent opportunity to get to know each other and share their views on the globe’s most pressing needs.
As diplomats like to point out, it is much better to meet face-to-face on a regular basis, than not talk at all.
And yet, pressure has grown exponentially in recent years on the G8 to deliver. This is in part because non-governmental organizations and pressure groups have begun scrutinizing its works much more closely.
A more fundamental cause is globalization: most of the world’s problems are now interrelated.
Its expansion — from the original six to today’s eight — reflects this.
These days, the debate centers on whether to enlarge it further, so as to accommodate new economic powers such as China and India.
The G8 owes its fortunes to the late French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing who, at the height of a recession sparked by the 1973 oil crisis, invited his colleagues from Britain, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US to talk about what could be done.
Canada was invited to join one year later, while post-communist Russia was formally allowed in by former US president Bill Clinton in 1997.
Twenty-first century G8s are also attended by influential developing countries. These are now referred to as the Outreach group and they hold separate meetings, only holding direct talks with the most powerful for brief parts of the summit.
Prior to his arrival in Toyako, French President Sarkozy said the time had come for the G8 to “adapt to the 21st century” by accommodating the so-called G5 developing countries — China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa — among its ranks.
Meanwhile, countries like Spain — whose GDP per capita has recently overtaken that of Italy — complain about being left out.
Britain also favors an expanded G8, but the US and Japan do not.
The US would prefer not to have to deal so regularly with undemocratic countries.
And Japan’s motives are obvious enough: Despite being an economic heavyweight, the Asian country is still punching below its weight when it comes to diplomacy. The G8 gives it a unique chance to make its voice heard.
“We don’t want it to be diluted,” is how one Japanese foreign ministry official put it.
As many as 4,000 journalists were accredited to this year’s G8; its statements provided front-page material.
In all, the three-day jamboree cost as much as a Hollywood blockbuster movie production.
Next year’s summit will take place in La Maddalena, a tiny island close to the lavish Sardinian villa of Italy’s ebullient prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.
Expect even more jokes and even fewer decisions.
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