A club of old colonialists, of decreasing relevance but still capable of causing enormous economic and ecological damage (and of starting wars): that, according to the director of a leading charity, is what the G8 is
Written by John Hilary
This month, the G8 is meeting on the shores of Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, its first summit under a UK presidency since the 2005 gathering at the Scottish golf resort of Gleneagles. That year was notable for the mass mobilization organized by the Make Poverty History coalition, which saw a quarter of a million people take to the streets of Edinburgh to protest against the G8’s economic policies.
This year there is less excitement surrounding the G8, and questions abound as to the continuing relevance of the grouping in the brave new world of the 21st century. So who are the G8, and are they part of the solution or just part of the problem?
The G8 powers first met in November 1975 in the French presidential palace of Rambouillet, outside Paris. At this point they were just the G6: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK and the US; Canada joined the following year, and Russia in 1998. The early 1970s had been a time of great upheaval on the world stage, with oil prices quadrupling as OPEC members restricted production in anger at Western support for Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. The Non-Aligned Movement’s call for a New International Economic Order had just been voted through at the United Nations, US troops had finally been forced out of Vietnam and global capitalism was experiencing its greatest crisis since World War II. The world’s leading economies suddenly found their hegemony in question, and the G8 was their response.
From its inception, the G8 has been an unapologetic statement of pure power on the part of the old colonial centers of empire. Unelected, un-transparent and unaccountable, the grouping is a private members’ club that holds its meetings in secret and transmits the results of its discussions to the wider world via a willing and complicit media. Such an invitation-only arrangement obviously suits the member states of the G8, but looks increasingly untenable in today’s political climate. In the wake of the Arab uprisings and the Occupy movement, old despotisms such as the G8 seem hopelessly outdated.
Moreover, since the economic crisis that has swept the world since 2008, the G20 has taken over from the G8 as the lead body for global economic governance. This changing of the guard was a recognition of the role now played by emerging economies such as China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Argentina and Saudi Arabia – and an admission that the old colonial powers were unable to deal with the crisis they had caused. Yet the G20 has not just taken over the reins from the G8; it has reaffirmed the neoliberal capitalist system that caused the crisis. So where does this leave the G8? Is it not redundant?
The G8 continues to pronounce on the key strategic issues that bind together the interests of its member states, especially the interconnected issues of energy and war. G8 communiqués have regularly identified the “rogue states” that it wishes to demonize, often as a prelude to launching military assaults on them. The overt bias in these statements is no embarrassment to leaders used to having their own way without being subjected to external scrutiny. The G8 criticizes Iran for failing to provide details of the “possible military dimensions” of its nuclear program, for example, but maintains a studied silence over the highly developed nuclear weapons capability of G8 allies such as Israel.
In respect of energy, the G6’s earliest response to OPEC’s restriction of oil supplies in the 1970s was unequivocal, as the communiqué from Rambouillet stated bluntly: “We are determined to secure for our economies the energy sources needed for their growth.” This determination has continued ever since, with summits regularly affirming the lengths to which G8 members will go to guarantee their energy security.
The invasion of Iraq 10 years ago is a reminder of the destruction that G8 members are prepared to inflict on other peoples in order to guarantee Western access to the world’s natural resources. The G8 also has no qualms about the ecological consequences of its appetite for new sources of energy. Despite the acknowledged damage it will cause to local and global ecosystems alike, last year’s G8 communiqué committed its member states to further exploration in “frontier areas”, as well as the use of highly damaging drilling techniques such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”.
G8 member states are equally dangerous when they purport to be acting in the service of others. Summits regularly include statements of concern about food crises and other challenges facing Africa, without hinting that the problems of that continent are the direct result of G8 economic policies over the years. Instead, the G8 has launched a series of initiatives that aim to dispossess the peoples of Africa still further, the latest of them being the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition that was launched at last year’s G8.
As described in the recent War on Want report The Hunger Games, this initiative seeks to reconfigure African agriculture in favour of large agribusiness corporations such as Unilever, Diageo and Monsanto, all of which have been involved in the New Alliance from the start. G8 member countries have committed hundreds of millions of dollars in order to facilitate the private sector’s takeover of African agriculture, threatening the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and rural communities across the continent.
The UK government is set to contribute a massive $600 million to the New Alliance from its aid budget over the coming three years, including programs in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Mozambique.
The G8 also seeks to advance corporate interests through its pursuit of market liberalization around the world. It continues to press for free trade and investment agreements that will benefit the operations of transnational capital, despite the acknowledged problem that such policies have resulted in less competitive economies and that millions of jobs have been lost as a result.
The latest round of these agreements (including the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership launched this year) are not actually about trade at all, but will target environmental, labor and social standards that represent “barriers” to the operations of transnational corporations, according to the G8. This means undermining important social safety measures at a time when austerity programs are already driving millions into poverty in G8 countries themselves.
Social movements and progressive forces will continue to confront the G8’s monopoly on power and to highlight its lack of legitimacy as a global leadership body. In addition to political mobilizations at Lough Erne itself, there will be a week of action in Britain in June to raise awareness of the continuing threat posed by the G8.
While its future relevance may be limited, the group’s interventions still have the capacity to cause considerable damage in the present. It is up to all world citizens to call for an end to the G8 and to press for a more democratic forum for global economic governance. The G192, otherwise known as the United Nations, would be a good place to start.
John Hilary is Executive Director of War on Want, which has been campaigning for human rights and against global poverty, inequality and injustice since 1952.
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