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British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, front from left, share a word during a G8 working session with other world leaders during the G8 Summit at the Deerhurst Resort in Hunstville, Ont., Saturday. (Guido Bergmann/AP Photo)
British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, front from left, share a word during a G8 working session with other world leaders during the G8 Summit at the Deerhurst Resort in Hunstville, Ont., Saturday. (Guido Bergmann/AP Photo)

Analysis

The G8 risks becoming increasingly irrelevant Add to ...

The G8 summit ended with assertions of new-found relevance, but the common purpose Stephen Harper found with the leaders behind closed doors was less evident in what they actually accomplished.

This was a G8 that struggled to patch together fault lines on security issues and the economy, and to muster common action while fiscal difficulties focus their political attention at home.

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The G8 has lost the role of steering the global economy and is now devoted to security and aid. Mr. Harper closed the smaller summit saying it had been refocused.



I have never seen a G8 more fundamentally united in purpose. Prime Minister Stephen Harper


But if leaders felt a bond, it remains a group with plenty of differences.

Even though economics aren't on the G8 agenda, divisions among the old Group of Eight were the focus coming into the G20. Canada fought Europe on bank taxes. The U.S. desire that a strong Germany spend more in the short term, when Germany wants to cut, was as much the focus as China's currency.

Those splits didn't explode at the G8 table, but economics and politics at home scaled back the scope of common action.

Mr. Harper's centrepiece, a $5-billion initiative to reduce the deaths of mothers and children in the developing world, provided a step he could claim as an accomplishment - but it fell short as other G8 nations did not match Canada's money.

Canada put in one-fifth of the sum, $1.1-billion over five years, but far bigger economies Germany and Japan put in only half that, $500-million, while France pledged $650-million.

The Obama administration, concerned about congressional politics in a tough economy, shaved some money off its proposed contribution in the last week of talks, and only committed to two years of funding totalling $1.35-billion. Britain's David Cameron, concerned about announcing a big long-term pledge just after draconian budget cuts, followed suit, with $600-million over two years.

On security, money mattered, too. The group which in 2002 pledged $20-billion over 10 years to clean up unsecured nuclear materials didn't issue a common pledge to extend it because Europeans didn't match billions proposed by the United States.

Behind the scenes, an old fault line watered down efforts to pressure nuclear scofflaws: Russia's reluctance to join the West in chastising nations like North Korea and Iran.

The Russians, according to officials involved in the talks, were resistant to strong statements attacking North Korea's sinking of a South Korean naval vessel in March, and Iran's repression of dissidents and disrespect for human rights.

Canada had proposed strong language on both. In talks among officials Thursday, the Japanese were aghast that a Russian counter-proposal let North Korea off the hook. Other G8 nations kept pushing.

On their way to a G20 summit that included South Korea and a key player in pressuring North Korea, China, other G8 nations sacrificed tough language on Iran to Russia in order to win a strong condemnation of North Korea.

"What is interesting is the lack of commonality on some issues, like security," said Andrew Cooper, veteran summit-watcher and distinguished fellow at the Canadian Centre for Governance Innovation. On maternal health, he said, "it's somewhat paltry on the European side."

Among the mixed results, however, there was a mild endorsement for the assertions of Mr. Harper and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who trumpeted the value of informal chats among G8 friends.

At least they felt a need patch up some differences. Big rich nations couldn't come completely empty-handed when Mr. Harper called on them to save poor mothers and children. The Russians had to concede one issue to win another.



On the one hand, they're disagreeing over almost every issue, but there's still this coziness. Andrew Cooper, veteran summit-watcher


The G8 leaders who want the summit to survive are now, in a sense, competing with a G20 keen to take over a key part of its agenda, development, leaving its mandate thin and future uncertain. The United States might decide to end the G8 when it is its turn to host in 2012.

The G8's results this time: "It focused, but it had modest accomplishments," Mr. Cooper said.

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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