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.

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 Like-minded criticism from nongovernmental organizations and media might lead one to believe it is obsolete.

It's not. The organization of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Britain, and the United States remains essential, not just for member countries, but for the sake of the world.

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.

Obama's instinct seems to be to abandon the G-8 in favor of purely global structures, perhaps like the old League of Nations configuration.

Yet the failure of the league left us with important lessons at a terrible cost: The working core of the world order is Atlantic-based, and the UN needs its Atlantic core to be well organized if it is to work at all.

It seems that if the G-8 is killed, it will be dissolved into a bigger, North-South Summit, probably a Group of 14. Maybe Obama wants a G-14 as well, and that's fine, but the G-8 should remain. The new summit would no longer represent the West. This is advocated with nice words: "democracy," "relevance," being "up to date." But it will be a grave mistake: Larger will be more undemocratic, not more democratic.

The Group of Seven, which comprises finance ministers of the G-8, minus Russia, is still the operational core of the G-8, and it consists entirely of democracies. Any larger group will be selected on some other principle; it will be representative of the largely undemocratic character of the world. And that is what many of its proponents like about it – authoritarian China and Egypt, and unstable Mexico. The G7's historic commitment to democracy will disappear.

The group is the largest possible coherent body of major powers at this time. It has common values and common interests. It represents the "First World" (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development), which produces a colossal 55 percent of the world's gross domestic product in purchasing power parity terms, 77 percent in real terms. That's a larger share than OECD had in the 1980s, or in the 1960s. Larger groups are praised nowadays for being slightly bigger than 77 percent.

But their numbers add up to much less in practice because their societies don't fit together and can rarely combine their influence. There are already plenty of North-South confabs around. What has given the "G-8 + six" meetings their practical value is the fact that they have met as an outreach of the G-8 summit. Merge the two into a single G-14 and they both will quickly lose relevance.

It's true that in recent months, two Group of 20 summits were held, but that was for the specific purpose of confronting the global financial crisis. Despite the growth of other countries, such as China and India, the OECD grouping is not shrinking in importance. There will always be new countries growing faster than old Western ones. It is the regimes that prophesy Western "decadence" that have disappeared.

The West has continued to add more countries – Germany, Japan, South Korea, southern Europe, eastern Europe – to itself, once they have modernized, democratized, and Westernized enough to be integrated organically. The West's importance is not maintained by dissolving itself into a general dialogue, but by enlarging itself soberly.

Ira Straus was executive director of the Association to Unite the Democracies during the cold war, and has been US coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO since 1992.

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