Are summits of rich Western nations obsolete?
Despite what Obama says, the G-8 remains essential.
President Obama has joined the chorus of calls for replacing the Group of Eight with a much broader group. It may be smart politics to pick on the elite forum for wealthy Western nations, but it's not smart policy.Skip to next paragraph
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At the most recent G-8 summit in Italy a few weeks ago, Mr. Obama criticized the group's exclusivity: "[T]o think we can somehow deal with some of these global challenges in the absence of major powers – like China, India, and Brazil – seems to me wrongheaded. To have entire continents like Africa or Latin America not adequately represented in these major international forums and decisionmaking bodies is not going to work."
His statement follows years of protests aimed at stopping the G-8 from meeting. Like-minded criticism from nongovernmental organizations and media might lead one to believe it is obsolete.
Let's look again at Obama's statement. Three big mistakes lurk in those two sentences.
1. The G-8 deals first of all with cooperation among its members. It can and should do this in the absence of outside countries.
2. To say an international forum like the G-8 cannot work without every continent and every big country represented is nonsense. Some forums are global; some are not.
The nonglobal ones generally work better; indeed, the global ones could not work without them. In Iraq, the US and United Nations are cooperating now because the Western countries are agreed, but the US and UN were not cooperating in 2003, and the UN was sharply divided and unable to follow any consistent policy because the Western countries were divided.
In Afghanistan, the US, NATO, and UN are all cooperating, because the NATO countries are agreed. The extent to which the NATO/G-8 system works in turn determines in many cases – the most important cases – the extent to which the UN system can work.
3. To call the G-8 an international "decisionmaking body" feeds paranoid fantasies about the G-8 being an invisible world government. The actual G-8 has no bureaucracy of its own and passes no laws. The only "decision" its participants can take is to make agreements among themselves. They do have global influence, however. This is because they are not obsolete at all.