Whither the G-8? Prospects for the L'Aquila Summit
July 7, 2009
Q1: How did the G-8 come about?
A1: The original group began in 1975 as an informal forum for the world’s major industrialized democracies that emerged to discuss the global economic downturn (a result of the oil crisis) and international monetary system reform. French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing invited the heads of state from Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Canada and Russia were added as members in 1976 and 1997 respectively, and although not a formal member, the European Commission has attended since 1981. G-8 summits are typically held once a year, and each member takes a turn hosting and presiding over the agenda in accordance with a preestablished rotation. This year’s host of the G-8 summit is Italy. Although earlier G-7 summits focused on economic and financial issues, since Russia’s addition, recent G-8 meetings have addressed a wide range of topics from global terrorism, energy, and climate change to global health and international development.
Q2: What is the significance of the G-8?
A2: Some believe the economic significance of the G-8 has waned in recent years as many critics have suggested that a forum that does not include China or India (the third- and twelfth-largest economies respectively in terms of GDP) is irrelevant. While still representing more than half of the world economy, the share of world GDP held by the G-8 countries has declined as a percentage since its founding, which calls into question whether this forum has the ability to project sufficient global economic leadership. The G-8 has attempted to respond to such criticisms by expanding recent summits, including by inviting the so-called G-8+5 (which includes China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and Mexico) and other nations to address certain topics.
This year’s G-8 work on economic issues has been perceived by many as a preparatory meeting for the larger gathering of the G-20. G-20 summits were launched for the first time in 2008 and also serve as a forum that seeks to provide constructive dialogue between industrial and emerging-market countries to issues of global economic stability. While the G-20 is more inclusive and considered more representative of global economic realities, due to its size and divergent policy agendas, the G-20 may be a more challenging forum for world leaders to reach consensus on the economic issues of the day. The G-20 met in April in London to discuss the global financial crisis and will meet again in September in the United States, further raising questions about the G-8’s political and economic efficacy.
Q3: What do we expect to come out of L’Aquila?
A3: A focus of the L’Aquila summit is likely to be on how the group will characterize the current global economic situation and how each member will defend its particular policy prescription for recovery. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has labeled the summit as a “G-8 of rules” to establish a legal standard to prevent a future global economic crisis, although expectations have been lowered in the days before the summit. The G-8 will also take the opportunity to assess the progress on reaching a potential agreement by the Copenhagen UN Framework Convention on Climate Change scheduled for December. This is of particular importance to European leaders who will likely praise U.S. president Barack Obama publicly for his environmental leadership while privately seeking additional commitments to specific and robust carbon emission reduction targets. The G-8 may also attempt to provide a unified approach to post-election Iran. While it is not clear that the G-8 members will agree to additional sanctions or measures, a strong joint statement is anticipated, condemning the recent crackdown by the Iranian regime and supporting the rights of the Iranian people to peacefully protest.
While starting with the traditional G-8, the summit will continue to add nations, reaching an anticipated total of 39 nations. On the final day of the summit, the G-8 will be joined by seven African nations (South Africa, Egypt, Angola, Nigeria, Senegal, Algeria, and Libya) to discuss issues of security, the environment, energy, food security, and African development. Notably, the G-8 countries are expected to commit more than $12 billion for agricultural development over the next three years as part of a food security initiative that is designed to shift the G-8 strategy from providing official development aid to committing long-term investments in farming, which will help the developing world to produce more of its own food and grow its own economies. The question will be whether G-8 leaders will live up to their own commitments, as its members have often failed to do in recent years.
Q4: What is the future of the G-8 given the rise of the G-20?
A4: Given the wide range of nations invited to the summit and the uncertainties over its future, the title of this summit could easily be the G-“fill in the blank.” Yet uncertainties swirl around the future of not only the G-8 but also the G-20, which some suggest will supersede it. There is not even agreement that there will be a G-20 leaders’ summit next year. Some have suggested that the G-8 or a G-7 continue to serve as a smaller group of like-minded states on economic issues or focus on broader foreign policy or national security issues that the G-20 is not prepared to address. Overall, we are facing both a time of great economic uncertainty and the uncertainty about the direction of the very institutions, such as the G-8 and G-20, set up to help confront key challenges.
Heather A. Conley directs the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., and Steven P. Schrage holds the CSIS Scholl Chair in International Business.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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