How to read the alphabet soup of global 'clubs'

This week's summit of Western Hemisphere leaders reflects a churn in the membership of many multinational bodies – and a search for common values that endure against rising global challenges.

In this 2013 photo, President Obama greets Cuba's President Raul Castro in Johannesburg at the memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela.

With the rapid changes in the world, countries are more wary these days of the clubs they join and the company they keep. A perfect example is this weekend’s Summit of the Americas, being held in Panama with 35 heads of state and government attending.

Cuba, which was kicked out of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1962, has been invited to rejoin the hemispheric gathering, held every three years. But it has said “no thanks.” And yet President Raúl Castro is attending anyway. He might even shake President Obama’s hand.

The OAS has another problem. Its charter compels it to “promote and defend” democratic norms. Yet it welcomes Cuba’s reentry, and does little about one member, Venezuela, as it drifts toward dictatorship. Other than geographic proximity and a similar colonial history, why does the OAS even exist?

The Americas are not alone.

The European Union faces the possible exit of Greece from the eurozone for its violations of economic norms, and Britain threatens to leave in a few years over differences on immigration and other issues. Ukraine’s attempt to enter the EU in 2013 led to a conflict  with Russia. The Group of Eight nations then kicked out Russia as a member, returning itself to the original G7, or “the West.”

But the G7’s own purpose was put in question in 1999 when it welcomed the creation of the G20, which includes large “emerging” economies such as China. Even within the G20, a group known as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has tried to define common interests, although more so in what it opposes than proposes.

In Asia, the alphabet soup of multilateralism gets murkier with overlapping groups carrying such acronyms as ASEAN, APEC, EAS, and ADB. Now China, flush with cash, has set up a regional bank for infrastructure to compete with the World Bank and similar bodies. The United States opposes it, even arm-twisting allies not to join. But most are signing up. Meanwhile, the US and China, as the world’s two largest economies, talk about a “G2” grouping.

In this flux of club memberships, three institutions have endured with a large measure of clout. One is the United Nations Security Council, with its five permanent and veto-wielding powers, and the related UN agencies. Another is the International Monetary Fund, which can help bolster weak economies. And then there is the lesser-known “club” of wealthy nations known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These bodies set rules by consensus but have exercised great influence in shaping the world by either force, money, or rules.

Behind the recent changes in these clubs and their membership lies a desire to find common values and interests. As global challenges from terrorism to climate change have risen, each nation finds it cannot sail the stormy seas alone. They cherish sovereignty but need collective security and common solutions.

This morphing and churning of clubs is a good sign of a search for universal norms, even if some countries, notably Russia and China, try to distance themselves from humanity-encompassing ideals. Power may ebb and flow among nations. They might align along temporary interests, such as security or trade. But the best bonds between states are unchanging values, most often found in democracies. This weekend’s OAS summit will be a window on how one club of nations is doing.

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