As Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels to Japan this weekend to gather with seven other world leaders for the G8 summit, there will be an uneasy feeling of déjà vu. It might be called That Seventies Summit.
The G8, in continuation of a 32-year-old tradition, still rather quaintly tends to be described as "the group of eight leading industrial nations." Those words, barely true in the seventies, have become embarrassingly false and misleading.
In the view of a growing consensus of observers, Canada, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia are not the eight largest economies, they are no longer industrial nations, they do not form any sort of a "group," and, it has become painfully apparent, they are no longer capable of leading. Not in a forum like this, anyway.
In response, a new item is being thrust onto the G8 agenda this year, some say decades too late: the abolition of the G8. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, will be launching a proposal for replacing the G8 with a new organization, likely to be called the G13, that will include Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.
That plan has the backing of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose government tried unsuccessfully to do something similar in 2005, following equally unsuccessful attempts by then-prime minister Paul Martin to replace it with a wider G20.
Japan is fiercely opposed to the idea and will "block expansion at any cost," diplomats say. Like Canada, it fears that a more representative G8 might push it off the edge of the big players' table.
"If China and India were admitted," Japan's Jiji news service reported this week, "Japan's status as the sole Asian member in the G8 club would be undermined and the influential role of chair of the annual summit would be less frequent."
It is the perpetual dilemma of the summit: Any efforts to make it an international body that can do something effective have been thwarted by the members' desire to keep their status within it. Half the G8's members are European, at a moment when Europe represents a much smaller fraction of the world's economy, but efforts to replace these proud countries with a single European Union seat have been rejected outright.
"G8 membership largely reflects the 1970s international power structure," Andrew Cooper, head of the University of Waterloo's Centre for International Governance Innovation, concluded in a recent report. He described the G8's "double crisis of legitimacy and efficiency: As it does not include developing countries, the G8 is unable to set priorities for the international community, and this fact, in itself, reduces its capacity to broker solutions to pressing global problems."
In short, the G8 wasn't set up to be the important international body it has become. And with paralysis and impotence plaguing the world's other big bodies - the United Nations, its Security Council, the World Trade Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and often the World Bank - the G8 is being asked to solve the world's most serious problems at the very moment it is least equipped to do so. The structure of the G8, designed to make its members look good and seem co-operative and avoid the intense debates that might lead to real progress, conspires against its success.
When these gatherings of the powerful were first organized by U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger in the 1970s (they began with six countries, adding Canada in 1976 in a Cold War flourish and then Russia officially in 1998 in hopes that it would become a democracy), they were attempting to solve a set of problems that look strikingly like those of 2008: rising inflation, oil-price shocks, financial instability, stalled world-trade agreements, the threat of terrorism, poverty in the developing world. Behind closed doors, talk was dominated by Russia's confusing authoritarianism. And there were many who suggested even then that the summit made no sense, that the wrong countries were participating.
Hardly anything has changed. The same questions have plagued the summit: Why is Canada a member? Why Italy? If it's a gathering of big economies, why not the economies that now dominate the world? If it's a gathering of democracies, why is Russia a member? If it's supposed to be a quiet, confidential meeting of powerful leaders, why has it become a media spectacle devoted to bold and often undeliverable promises?
The summits have certainly become bigger: Now they include hundreds of ministers, aides and "sherpas" who do advance work for governments, thousands of reporters, dozens of guest nations. They were once deluged with protesters; now the activist groups are part of the G8 summit. At the 2005 Scotland summit, for the first time the tens of thousands of people protesting outside were actually supporting the summit's agenda of African aid. It has become a huge institution, though one without a permanent staff: In 1976, the first year Canada attended, the nations issued a 1,600-word statement that made seven commitments, none of which were ever fully delivered by the members. Last year, in Russia, the nations issued eight statements, the longest of them almost 26,000 words, and made 329 commitments, about a third of which are being turned into reality.
This, defenders of the G8 say, is proof of its effectiveness: more summit pledges than ever before are being delivered. The world's leading summit scorekeeper is John Kirton of the University of Toronto's G8 Information Centre. He collects summit statistics the way baseball fans compile RBI averages, and reckons that the summits are generally doing a better job than ever before of delivering on their pledges.
But this view sidesteps a couple of major flaws. First, since the G8 has become a high-publicity event, its declarations have increasingly been engineered for easy delivery. The most urgent issues on trade, on poverty and on conflicts such as Darfur and Afghanistan are rarely confronted head-on; the declarations are more often summaries of existing trends and policies. Unlike other international bodies, this one is designed to make all its members look good, often at the expense of anything else.
And the G8 summits are successful only according to their own terms. Advocates of the existing structure (including senior figures in the Canadian government) say that a G13 or a G20 would ruin one of the best qualities of the G8: Its fraternal, clubby nature, bringing together a group of leaders who can speak confidently as equals and generally see the world through similar lenses. Bringing in more diverse countries would destroy that consensus, this view holds, and turn it into something like the UN General Assembly, fractious and counterproductive.
But that misses a larger point: By avoiding larger conflict, the G8 has avoided larger success. The past 30 years have been the most successful three decades in human history for human well-being. But rising inequality and the formation of a desperate global underclass have been well-known issues that the world's most powerful leaders have had trouble facing, in large part because of the limited nature of their main meeting. Critics look at the success the European Union has had, and wonder if that sort of intense co-operation couldn't have been reached at a higher level if we weren't stuck with the G8.
When serious new commitments are made, another shortcoming becomes apparent. The plan for Africa signed, with enormous effort, at the 2005 summit was the pinnacle of such efforts: It was a genuine and truly novel effort to confront the crisis in sub-Saharan Africa. Reports since then have concluded that it did passably well, giving Africa a lot more help than it would have received without the G8, but a lot less than the G8 promised.
It was apparent to everyone then that something was wrong: The countries that were subject to all this largesse and planning were only invited as guests. Many of the countries that have the largest effect on Africa - China, the Gulf states - were absent. British officials involved in that event said that they found the G8 a terribly inadequate vessel for the delivery of such a vital package.
And it gave rise to another question: If the Commission for Africa really was the G8's greatest accomplishment (and this was an often-made and quite plausible argument), then why is it the G8 at all? If international development is the goal, surely there's a better way to negotiate it.
So it will be this year in Hokkaido, as the '70s swingers' club meets again to talk about a global financial crisis whose causes, and perhaps solutions, are deeply rooted in the activities of China and the world's major oil states, countries that will not be at the table.
It should be an uncomfortable moment for countries such as Canada, whose presence there owes itself more to Cold War legacies than anything else. In recent years, observers have begun to question this ever more loudly.
"No one today would propose an annual meeting that includes Canada, … Italy … and Russia … but not China … and India. … The G8 is increasingly an anachronism," Richard Haass a former head of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, concluded in 2005.
"I have no idea why a country like Italy is allowed to continue to be in the club," Jim O'Neill, head of Global Economic Research at Goldman Sachs, concluded after last year's summit. "Italy's contribution to the world economy has been continually shrinking for a while now, but at G8 summits, Italy is still a participatory to the official agreements about how the world functions today. The worst thing is that the wrong participants are sitting at the G8 table. It is a somewhat simplistic idea to want to rule the world according to some post-war schematic."
This should be the moment to pull out the wiring and build a new machine. It is a crucial moment in world history, in economic, political and military terms. It is a time of leadership change in many major countries, and a moment when the east and south are becoming equals with the great powers of the 20th century. If change waits another year, the G8 will look even more like a retirement home for powers that once meant something.