G-7 `club' of rich nations looks for a new purpose in post-cold-war world

ON the eve of the 20th annual Group of Seven summit of leaders from the world's top industrialized nations, the various participants are pushing to bring scores of pressing global issues to the table.

But as the heads of state from the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan prepare to meet in Naples from July 8-10, their aides and many critics are asking if the G-7 is at all useful.

``Without a doubt, yes,'' says a senior European Union official who has logged many years of experience at G-7 gatherings. He recounts a comment by former President Reagan that summits provide ``a picture of the guy at the other end of the telephone.''

Begun as the G-6 in 1975 (Canada joined a year later), this club of rich nations was formed to counter the global economic challenges posed by the 1973 oil shock. The meetings took on political dimensions in the 1980s when they confronted the Soviet bloc. Now G-7 is looking for its place in the post-cold-war world.

A meeting of like-minded leaders from rich Western societies can expedite discussions on issues, such as the crumbling Soviet empire, that would get muddled in a more global forum.

And the meetings often afford new or weak leaders with the most high-profile of springboards into international affairs. Japan sees the G-7 as a forum to exercise global clout, although its wings are clipped this year due to a weak coalition government back home.

While the summits help leaders look statesman-like, they also risk becoming outlets for nationalist interests at the expense of international cooperation.

And while some observers worry that the G-7 threatens or overlaps the work of other multilateral organizations, the summits can stimulate these institutions to grapple with vexing issues.

The 1991 summit was remarkable not for any particular outcome, but because it forced the G-7 to focus on the then-Soviet Union. By 1992, the G-7 requested reports on the then-Russian economy from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as the basis for their assistance to Moscow.

ALTHOUGH the communiques issued at summits are almost entirely pre-written (often months in advance), they often run the danger of raising expectations, and when they have not been fulfilled, the G-7 has cost itself credibility. For many years there were pledges to complete the global trade talks by the year's end, but the promises quickly sounded hollow.

While the prime function of the summit may be to help the world economy - by pressuring nations to break down trade barriers, eliminate inflationary policies, and afford debt relief for the poorest countries - the summit can also elevate the need to counter the dangers of unsafe nuclear power plants, the proliferation of AIDS, and the rampant growth of money laundering.

Some would argue that the summit is only one international forum, and to load onto it responsibility for all the world's problems is to put so much stress on the mechanism, it will inevitably break. But it's useful for leaders to confront the international dimensions of what they are doing at home, and to extend the limits of what can be accomplished abroad.

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