From a one-off informal gathering in 1975, the group has grown to become the most exclusive and influential club in the world. A leading expert traces its history
Written by Hugo Dobson
To some it is an evil behemoth of global capitalism, a self-appointed elite making decisions in darkened, smoky rooms that shape the world; to some it is little more than a ceremonial talking shop issuing well-meaning statements that are duly ignored or forgotten about; to others it is little more than a distraction, disturbance or annoyance to their daily lives. In short, nobody seems quite sure exactly what the Group of Eight (G8) is. It rolls into town every summer with great fanfare and grabs a few headlines, usually centered upon either the anti-globalization protests outside the summit perimeter or trivial aspects of events inside the venue like what the leaders ate for dinner, before then disappearing for another year. To compare it to a sporting event like the World Cup or the Olympics would not be a stretch too far for some.
The various descriptions that have been employed over the years to capture what binds this collection of countries together don’t help the innocent observer much either. A group of “the most industrialized countries in the world” may have made sense as a label a few decades ago, but the G8 states are now largely post-industrial. Neither does the group consist of all the richest or most powerful in a multipolar world that is now characterized by the rise of a number of new players outside of the G8. Even its alphanumeric name has the potential to mislead, as there aren’t in fact eight leaders sat round the summit table (the complications surrounding European representation mean that there are actually nine, and sometimes 10, participants).
Recent events have also conspired to frustrate.
The establishment in 2008 of the seemingly more legitimate G20 leaders’ gathering as the main event in the calendar of global summitry led to the continued existence of the G8 being questioned for a time within government, academic and public circles. However, predictions of its demise were greatly exaggerated and it has continued to meet. In actual fact, an informal settlement of this “messy multilateralism” or “gaggle of Gs” appears to have emerged with the G8 meeting around May/June and the G20 in the autumn each year. Next year the G8 leaders will meet in the southern Russian city of Sochi, which also happens to be the venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Since the G8 is evidently not about to disappear any time soon, how can we begin to understand what it is? One way is to eschew the short-term perspectives that dominate much of the coverage at the time of any individual summit – the predictability of which is such that the headlines for one year’s summit could easily be regurgitated from any previous year’s summit. Instead, by taking a longer-term view that goes back to its origins and traces its development, one can throw light on the nature of the G8 and arrive at some realistic expectations as to what it can achieve.
Origins And Expectations
What distinguishes the G8 from the plethora of other summits, organizations and forums is informality. It has no charter, flag or headquarters. No official notes or minutes are taken of its discussions. The only documentary evidence that a summit took place is a final declaration or communiqué, and even this was a moot point at the very first summit in 1975.
When it met that year at the château of Rambouillet in the Parisian suburbs to discuss shared macroeconomic challenges for two days in mid-November 1975, the G8 was then a G6 of France, the United States, the United Kingdom, West Germany, Japan and Italy. The host, French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and his German counterpart, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, planned for it to be a one-off, informal gathering of likeminded politicians.
It was their intention that the relaxed and frank atmosphere of the informal meetings they had attended in the White House library two years previously when they were both finance ministers of their respective countries could be replicated at the leaders’ level. The emphasis was placed squarely on the opportunities that might result from personal encounters between fellow leaders, thereby overcoming a decision-making process frequently stymied by bureaucrats. Any decisions or agreements could then be transmitted to the more established, legal and legitimate organizations of global governance for implementation.
Although it seemed novel at the time, this was nothing new. Over a century and a half previously, the Concert of Europe had been established in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars with the same intention: to create a flexible forum for discussion among the mutually recognized great powers that could address the challenges of the day and maintain the status quo.
It is no accident that one of the other candidates for the title of progenitor of the G8 was the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whose PhD thesis on the Concert of Europe resulted in a seminal work on European diplomacy, A World Restored.
Despite the initial intention that their meeting in Rambouillet would be a one-off, the leaders saw value in their gathering and decided to meet the following year in San Juan at the invitation of US President Gerald Ford. This time Canada was invited, the G6 thereby becoming the G7.
Although this summit proved to be something of a damp squib, having largely been called to bolster Ford’s presidential election campaign, the leaders met the following year in London for the third time. At this summit, the membership was expanded again to embrace an eighth participant in the form of the President of the Commission of the European Economic Community, without changing the group’s alphanumeric configuration or granting the Community the right to host a summit.
The reason for this inclusion was that the Treaty of Rome accorded the Commission the right to speak on behalf of the then EEC on economic matters, so it would have been inappropriate were France, Germany, Italy and the UK to assume this role on behalf of the rest of the Common Market. European representation would be expanded further when the position of President of the European Council (when not already occupied by one of the member states) was added to the table in 1982.
The final membership change came as a result of an incremental process in the 1990s that culminated in the addition of Russia, thus creating the G8 we have today. However, this was not the last word on who was in and who was out. China was the focus of attention for a time as a possible member until the creation of the G20 rendered that debate largely irrelevant, while questions have been raised regarding Russia’s commitment and contribution to and continued membership of the G8.
Alongside this expanded membership, the remit of discussions has also evolved. From an original emphasis on economics, it was not long before the G7 began to address the political and security issues associated with the Cold War. After becoming a G8, it has become synonymous with specific subjects such as the Drop the Debt campaign or climate change (the 2008 Toyako Summit resulted in the first commitment on climate change to which the George W Bush administration would sign up).
With the G20 assuming the role as the premier forum for international economic co-operation, the G8 has appeared at times to be in search of an agenda. Those it has landed on have tended to be non-economic, such as the opportunities and challenges presented by the internet, or more political and security-focused, such as the Arab Spring and North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.
However, as the G8’s agenda has since its establishment been subject to the whim of an individual host and able to respond with immediacy to a crisis, no area is beyond its attention. In fact, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is clearly returning the G8 to its economic roots at this summer’s 39th summit at Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, by developing an agenda focused on trade, tax and transparency.
As regards participants, the chief protagonists in G8 summitry have always been presidents, prime ministers and chancellors, the objective being to foster consensus among like-minded leaders. A series of summits in the 1980s represented a good example of this when a high level of ideological common ground between leaders such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Nakasone Yasuhiro emerged. More recently, the 2005 Gleneagles Summit showed leaders coming together to demonstrate solidarity after the London bombings. G8 summits are not the venue for mutual recrimination or the singling out of individual leaders.
Assisting them climb the ranges of international diplomacy over the years has been a group of aides known as “sherpas”. These are often high-level bureaucrats appointed directly by the leaders to liaise with each other in the year preceding the summit to develop the agenda.
A deepening of the summit process is also very much in evidence. The earlier practice of leaders being accompanied by their foreign and finance ministers was abandoned at the 1998 Birmingham Summit when separate ministerial meetings were established. Ministers responsible for trade, energy, climate change and justice have also met their G8 counterparts over the decades.
Other participants have included the spouses of the leaders, or more accurately wives, as husbands of female leaders have tended to avoid the ceremonies organized at the edges of the summit as part of the spousal program. Although these activities have helped to nurture the interpersonal relationships at the heart of the G8 and have even shaped its agenda on occasions, they have mostly been geared toward a predictable itinerary of highly feminized, media-friendly photo-ops.
However, there have even been slightly more peculiar events, including the wives’ visit to a refuse incinerator at the 1993 Tokyo Summit, or unplanned ones, such as the first ladies being “mooned” by two men at the 1997 Denver Summit.
Finally, a number of groups and individuals that would have once been kept firmly out of the summit process have been incrementally brought into the discussions. The Japanese organizers of the 2000 Okinawa Summit were the first to provide a base (albeit threadbare) for civil society groups to work from. Since then, NGOs and civil society have gained access to the summit’s media center and have sought to publicize their causes and hold the G8 leaders to account, while high-profile celebrity diplomats such as Bob Geldof and Bono have had the ear of some leaders.
Over time the G8 has both embraced and resisted change. It has responded to developments in world politics by widening and deepening its remit as well as accommodating new members. Concurrently, at regular intervals in its history, G8 hosts have sought to resist the ceremonialization of the summit and return to its origins as a “fireside chat”, allowing Tony Blair and George W Bush, for instance, to meet in the unlikely venue of the gym at 6.30am during the 2002 Canadian-hosted Kananaskis Summit, or for the early conclusion of the 1998 Birmingham Summit that allowed leaders the opportunity to watch Blair’s beloved Newcastle United lose in the final of the FA Cup.
As its history and development show, as a result of its informal and flexible nature the G8 has the potential to achieve either a lot or a little. Its impact is in the hands of the leaders, as is its future.
Hugo Dobson is Professor at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield, and the author of numerous books, including The Group of 7/8.
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