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Insight: New era for G8?

Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

From left: UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, US President George W Bush, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Displays of unity were few and far between

What does this year's G8 summit tell us about the state of global leadership?

Between them, the eight members of this group of rich industrialised nations account for a sizeable chunk of the world's economy.

But as each of them emerged - jetlagged but determinedly smiling - from the long-distance planes that had transported them to this green and foggy northern Japanese island, it was noticeable how almost all of them seemed preoccupied.

It was as though they were constantly glancing over their shoulder at economic and political woes at home, perhaps because they were still finding their feet (like Russian President Dmitry Medvedev) or perhaps because (like US President George W Bush) they could already see the home-stretch towards presidential retirement.

So what did this distractedness mean for the effectiveness of this year's G8 summit? What, in the end, were the summit's achievements?

'We produced results!'

At the outset, there was little doubt that expectations were low.

The Japanese hosts were desperately worried that their carefully controlled arrangements for an international focus on climate change - and a chance to showcase Japan's proud pre-eminence in energy efficiency - might end in failure.

We, the leaders of the world's major economies, both developed and developing, commit to combat climate change in accordance with our common but differentiated responsibilities
G8 statement on climate

The Bush administration had indicated that it would block any plan to tie G8 countries to commitments on emission targets without a global deal.

And on the poverty agenda, aid agencies feared that - far from any new help for the needy in Africa - the G8 leaders were no longer in a mood to be generous, and might not even commit themselves to stumping up the money owed on previous aid pledges.

In fact, the G8 leaders did come up with quite a few big decisions - on food aid, on food security, to express their concern over Zimbabwe, even on climate change.

"We spoke out candidly… at times the discussion got heated," said Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, as he closed the summit, "but we produced results!"

'Cracks' over Zimbabwe

Yes, but do the results stand up to scrutiny?

The statement on Zimbabwe came about as a result of US, British and Canadian pressure for a strong stand against President Robert Mugabe.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
Not everyone supported sanctions against Zimbabwe

UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted that the agreement, unanimously backed by all eight countries, would mean a new UN envoy to intervene in the crisis and new UN sanctions against what he called "a criminal cabal" and "an illegitimate regime with blood on its hands".

But the fact is that G8 leaders tried but singularly failed to win support from reluctant African leaders.

And even before the G8 statement was released, Russian officials were publically briefing journalists at the summit that Russia was opposed to sanctions against Zimbabwe as ineffective and possibly destabilising.

More like papering over the cracks, then, than a real display of G8 unity.

'No clear answers'

As for the climate change statement, G8 leaders loudly hailed their new and firmer commitment to lead a global cut in emissions of at least 50% by 2050.

But within hours the agreement had been undermined by China and India and other emerging economies who refused to endorse the targets, arguing that richer nations should carry more of the burden.

What had looked like a minor triumph turned into a failure to bridge differences.

Meanwhile, the entire embarrassing saga over renewing unkept promises of aid to Africa could not help but cast the G8 nations in a poor light, undermining confidence in that pledges delivered this year would prove any more reliable.

And even though the pressing issues of soaring oil prices and global food shortages did generate concrete ideas on how to tackle future crises, the G8 leaders came up with no clear answers - either on what caused the price rises, or how to stop them.

Their communiques offered the bleak warning that more price hikes posed a serious challenge to growth worldwide and could push millions back into poverty.

Agenda shift?

Overall, concluded this year's G8 leaders, we should guard against a possible protectionist backlash, and try to work together.

The mantra for this summit was that today's intertwined global threats can only be countered by far-reaching global solutions.

And that raises an intriguing question.

File image of a coal-fired plant in the US state of Georgia
Poorer nations have refused to endorse cuts in emissions

Even if this summit is remembered as being short on substantial new agreements, does this increased awareness by the G8 political elite of the need to collaborate suggest a shift in their agenda?

It feels as though the once overriding preoccupation with possible terrorist attacks or "arcs of extremism" by militant Islamists - so common in the last few years - is being edged aside by a new anxiety of looming financial and environmental instability.

A move, perhaps, from the confrontational, divisive post-9/11 era of 'us and them', to a new sense of shared global vulnerability.

'Softer' Bush

Already, there was a subtly different mood at the summit.

Let's not forget, for the past two years the leadership of G8 has been in transition. Gone are the old dramatis personae of that damaging and destructive political conflict over the Iraq war.

Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac went first. Now Tony Blair and Vladimir Putin have moved on - and with them has disappeared a certain abrasive combativeness that sometimes spilled over into naked rhetorical aggression.

There is nothing better than strutting the world stage... to make you look statesman-like

Even President Bush (the only member of the old guard left, if you don't count Mr Berlusconi) seemed this year a softer, gentler version of his old swaggering self.

His first public comments, side-by-side with the Japanese prime minister, were devoted to explaining why he had decided to attend the opening ceremony of the Chinese Olympics - in order not to offend the Chinese people - and why a conditional offer to take North Korea off the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism was the best way of containing its nuclear programme.

Gone indeed are the days of the axis of evil.

And when it came to the climate change debate, it was almost as though the US president, once the chief stumbling block, has become an irrelevance.

"I couldn't possibly comment," replied one G8 source when I suggested as much.

But he admitted that whoever wins the US presidential race in November, the next US leader is likely to look much, much greener, and progress on combating greenhouse gases may go much faster.

Good publicity

The idea of global solutions to global threats raises another perennial G8 question.

If G8 climate change agreements can be undercut so easily by China, and if oil prices can only be addressed by involving major oil producers, how long can G8 sustain the fiction that it still matters?

Isn't it time, not just for outreach sessions with other countries, but for the group to reform itself, or at least increase its numbers?

Suggestions that the group embrace new members are hardly new.

In economic terms, the presence of Italy and Canada, say, but not the Asian giants of China and India, looks increasingly like an anachronism.

Anti-G8 campaigners in Japan
A chance to solve the world's problems or an excuse for a holiday?
But G8, of course, is not only about the economy, it is about politically like-minded nations.

Already the inclusion of Russia has troubled some. And diluting the mix still further would not suit any of the current members, for a variety of reasons.

Some like the exclusivity of such a small elite group and want to keep it that way. Others worry that expanding the membership could be a recipe for stalemate, internal tensions and rifts.

The more voices there are round the table, goes the argument, the harder it is to show effective leadership.

Look at how hard it is for Nato these days to speak with one voice, or the EU with its unwieldy summits of 27 members.

Besides which, G8 leaders themselves will tell you if you ask them that it is precisely because it is so intimate that the forum is useful.

An intense two-and-a-half days of informal talks, in corridors, at dinners and at more formal sessions is an extraordinarily effective way of getting problems solved without the cumbersome bureaucracy of government, they argue.

And there is one further reason why you will not see G8 reform.

These political leaders might be uneasy about being scrutinised across the world and blamed for quaffing champagne and caviar while they debate the shortages that plague the rest of us. But, let's face it, they also like the publicity.

"What is the most important thing for Russia to get out of this 2008 G8 summit?" I asked one Russian official, wondering whether he would choose poverty, global warming or financial problems.

None of the above.

"It's promoting our new president's global image," he said with disarming frankness.

There is nothing better than strutting the world stage to debate the major issues of our age to make you look statesman-like.

Bridget Kendall's previous articles from her monthly Insight series:


A selection of your comments:

I feel like asking myself: what has it achieved so far? Can we even document its past achievements especially in areas in need of immediate attention, poverty eradication, fight against HIV etc? I strongly feel that the G8 has achieved nothing, or else, where are the leading signs to what it has achieved?
Francis Chishimba, Rome

The G8 summit has shown us that these leaders are all about the power they have and very little about the responsibility they show as leaders. By 2050 most of these leaders might have deceased. To plan 40 years ahead of time is hilarious in our turbulent world. People who suffer most from climate change have no control over their situation, because it is not only locally controlled. The USA, Canada and Europe outsource to China and India only due to economical reasons (cheap labour) and not for concern of the inhabitants. The pollution caused in these developing countries is mainly due to the greed of these countries. It must therefore be the responsibility of the consumers directly or indirectly via taxes / levies on the finished goods to help these developing countries to minimize the pollution as result of increased demand for cheap (laboured) goods.
YVos, Grande Prairie, Canada

History will record the pathetic meaninglessness of the 2008 G8 summit as the turning point that began a new historical era in which worldwide human development takes precedence over the greedy narrow elitist agenda. The summit's publicists tried their best to fool the world and its compliant elitist media into promoting vague statements about 42 years from now as somehow substantive. But the absurdity of claiming non-commitments about 2050 as the summit's great achievement is what history will record as breaking the back of the self-serving agenda of the world's wealthiest.
Robert Paster, Boston USA

So, having Canada in the G8 is an anachronism. What an ignorant comment! Relative to Canada's geographical dimensions and immense natural resources, there is no doubt that Germany, France and Britain are anachronisms.
Nick Kandiuk, Toronto, Canada

The G8 Summit is very important in my opinion because many important issues for our planet are treated at the G8 summit. The fact that being all together, the most industrialised nations, the G5 and African leaders is positive. People around the world should understand that the G8 meeting will not give magic solutions. But the fact that being all reunited is something I really appreciate and I hope we will see the results in the near-future of the meeting.
Bruno Sabella, Milan, Italy

I no longer expect politicians to solve all of the world's problems. I am encouraged by the growth of civil society. They are mankind's greatest hope. And hopefully, economic realities will make people switch to greener life styles and ease global warming. I pity the people in countries like Zimbabwe where there is no freedom for civil society to flourish. And it is a shame that the leaders of "free Africa" are not interested in checking this tyrant in Zimbabwe. These are the people who were fighting for freeing the masses of Africa from white rule!
Rajiv, India

What a melancholy gathering of Sad Sacks! The world cries out for visionary leadership, and these peacocks do little but prance about on an exotic island. If they held their summit in the midst of a Rio de Janeiro slum or atop a melting glacier, perhaps their posturing would be less annoying, and their results more germane. Will human kind ever reach a truly advanced state of evolution? Maybe the process of natural selection needs to begin anew. If this dismal gathering of humans is the best we can do, let's drain the gene pool and sit in the sun until another species can give it all a go.
David Michael Smith, Lake Oswego, Oregon, USA

Where is Australia? Isn't it a major developed country?

With its new prime minister it probably would have made an impact on the Climate Change front!
Ziggy, Lion's Head, Canada

Methinks the G8 a mere circus. They come together, bark as much as they want without a single bite; the current crisis in Zimbabwe is a case in study. I am of the opinion that the G8 should put her house in order so the World can take them more serious.
Ogalanya, Johannesburg, South Africa

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