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The G8 Meltdown

The Baltic coastal resort of Heiligendamm is the venue for this years G8 conference.
by Martin Walker
UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington (UPI) June 04, 2007
This week's Group of Eight summit in Germany may be the last, or almost the last of its kind. When this process began in the mid-1970s, the five founding members of the United States, Japan, Germany, France and Britain were without question the world's richest and most important industrial democracies.

Italy and Canada were then brought into the process to make it the G7, and Russia in the 1990s to make it the G8. This means that the current summit contains neither the world's most important economies, nor, thanks to Russia, can it be called a gathering of democracies without some stretching of the definition.

This year, in the Baltic coastal resort of Heiligendamm and under the chairmanship of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the G8 begins to change. It will entertain for almost half of the session some other countries that believe they have a perfect right to be there in the future, but who have yet to ascend to full membership status.

China and India are already in the world's top 10 economies, and will soon be in the top five. Brazil also selects itself, but speaks Portuguese. Mexico is the Spanish speaking representative and the world's 13th largest economy. To represent Africa, Merkel has chosen South Africa, the only recognizably modern economy and one of the few democracies on the continent.

They are invited, of course, to discuss Merkel's (and Europe's) deep concern over climate change and how the global community can best address it. China was already after the United States, the world's second-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) with 4.7 billion metric tons of emissions in 2004. (China will probably overtake the United States within the next 18 months.)

India, with 1.1 billion tons of GHG emissions in 2004, already spewed out some 300 million more tons than Germany, and on current trends will be producing more GHG than Britain, France and Germany combined in less than 10 years.

Beyond global warming, the nature of Merkel's guest list, combining economic power and population size and the ability to represent the different continents, contains the seeds of both the future global pecking order and of the future global summit process.

The G8 is no longer satisfactory. Italy and Canada are barely in the top economic rank. Europe is over-represented and Asia under-represented. Russia's democratic credentials are in serious question. But China has no democratic pretensions; it is an authoritarian one-party state with political prisoners, no freedom of religion, no free press and no independent judiciary. In economic terms, China's claim to join the G8 process is overwhelming, but its membership would automatically destroy the G8's claim to be a democratic gathering.

As a result, there has been some informal discussion, at places like the World Bank and in the European Commission, about how the G8 might evolve. Although the president of the commission already attends G8 meetings, they would dearly like to slash the European Union representation at such summits from the four national seats to just one -- that of the EU itself. (The French, British, Germans and Italians all agree that this is a terrible idea.)

Still, the idea that there should be a G4 of the United States, Japan, the EU and China has a certain appeal, so long as democracy is not seen as an essential requirement of membership, and the G4 do not mind offending the world's largest democracy, India, whose economy is poised to overtake that of Canada. (There is already a G4 group within the context of the World Trade Organization, of the United States and the European Union, plus Brazil and India.)

It is at this point that discussions over the reform of the G8 get bogged down in the same disputes that have undermined the various plans to reform the U.N. Security Council. The existing members do not want to give up the prestige and privileges that come with membership. But the argument that new and steadily more important members such as India or Brazil should be brought in is overwhelming -- except that each new addition dilutes the power and complicates the working of the system.

Moreover, the quota factor comes into play. If Latin America is to be represented, then Brazil must be chosen; but does that not mean that Spain or Mexico must be brought in to represent the Hispanic world? And if South Africa represents its continent, who should represent the Arab world, and what about the wider and far more numerous Islamic community in Asia?

Perhaps it is time to bring in the regional groupings, and to include the EU rather than Britain, France, Germany and Italy; to have the Arab states represented by the Arab League, and South America by Mercosur; to have Asia represented by ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) and the Shanghai Cooperation group (which includes Russia, China and the Central Asian countries).

There is an elegance and logic to this, but once it is suggested that the United States agree to be represented by NAFTA (the North American Free Trade group, including Mexico and Canada) it becomes impractical. Nation states do not like to surrender or even pool their sovereignty and let others negotiate on their behalf at international gatherings. Such a move would render the G8 irrelevant overnight.

And the interesting feature of the G8 is that it remains highly relevant, even though it is clumsy and unrepresentative. The reason for its success is not the annual summits, which tend to be predictable and sometimes tedious affairs (although it is very useful for the world's leaders to get to know one another in person), but the much lower profile meetings of the G8 finance ministers. Their meetings, and the much greater frequency of consultation between their staffs, mean that they are in embryo a system of global financial governance.

Other little-known aspects of the G8, like the meetings of the development ministers, or of the environment ministers, and of the labor ministers and so on, give the G8 process a great deal more depth and detail than the summits themselves. And since the G8 has now become the forum at which the world's major powers decide what to do about development aid and debt relief and climate change, the process will continue to be important, however unsatisfactory the structure and the membership.

In terms of economic power, trade and pollution, there is no doubt that any future summit should contain the United States and the European Union, China, Japan and India, and probably Russia and Brazil. But if we want to keep democracy as a critical component of the system, we had better keep the old G8, and set up a new and separate organization holding a purely economic summit and call it something different. That would be rather silly, so perhaps Angela Merkel has stumbled on the best interim solution: to keep the current G8 and to invite China and India and a handful of others along as special guests.

earlier related report
Walker's World: How the G8 works
By Martin Walker - UPI Editor Emeritus
Washington (UPI) May 31 - There are three layers of debate at G8 summits, and the upcoming meeting in Germany will be no exception.

The first layer is the public version of these annual summits of the leading industrial "democracies," a term that needs some qualifications because it includes Russia but excludes India.

The public version of the Group of Eight industrialized nations' meetings is contained in the communique, and this year as every year since they began in the 1970s, it will be a wish list of agreed good intentions, which will get some attention and some money, but only a limited amount of real commitment.

Then there is the real business that gets done in the corridors, in the gardens, over the dinners between the eight heads of government and in discreet bilateral sessions between the real players. Canada and Italy, for example, tend not to figure prominently at this level. But this is where Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush could talk frankly about the apparent drift back to Cold War rhetoric over the American plans to install a handful of anti-missile systems in central Europe, where they would be aimed at missiles coming from Iran.

At least, the G8 summit would be the place for this, except that Bush has invited Putin to the family holiday home at Kennebunkport, on the rugged coast of Maine.

But it could be the place for the European leaders to talk frankly and privately with Putin about a stable and lasting deal on Russian energy supplies. The Europeans all know that this is a dwindling asset. At current extraction rates, Russia will cease to be a major oil exporter within 20 years -- and possibly faster, unless the Russians can do something about the fearsome level of waste that has their economy using three times as much energy for each unit of GDP as the Europeans require. Putin either has not yet realized this plain fact or thinks it too far off in time to trouble him.

So that brings us to the third level of exchange, which is the time the leaders all anticipate eagerly: the gossip and jokes and private exchanges among the most exclusive club in the world. This time, one main topic will be their old partner, France's Jacques Chirac, who will later this summer face some probing questions from French magistrates about corruption in Paris during his time as mayor.

Will the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, grant his old mentor a pardon? Better still, what will be the outcome of the latest French magistrates' probe into the documents found at the home of French intelligence chief General Philippe Rondot, which suggest that Chirac kept an undisclosed (and thus illegal) account at the Sowa Bank in Tokyo worth some $50 million.

Somewhere between these three layers of discussion the real business will be done, much of it with the Indian and Chinese participants, who have been invited to some of the sessions. Their presence is a clue to the real concern of the summit host, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to head off the challenge from the German Green Party by getting some symbol of real progress on climate change.

The signs are not good. The American and German sherpas (officials who prepare the summit) have had some testy exchanges over the German hope for a Kyoto protocol Mark 2 and the U.S. insistence that Bush will not sign up for anything that sounds like Kyoto or contains clear numerical pledges for curbing emissions.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel lost his cool in an interview this week on Germany's N24 news channel and almost let out the secret of the different levels of summit discourse. "Now is not the time to merely write in the minutes how well we got along with each other. Now is not the hour of diplomacy. Now is the hour for real action," he said. "The challenge remains that of convincing the Americans that they have a responsibility -- also for their own citizens who suffer from climate change. Look at the hurricane in New Orleans."

Do not be misled. However pleased Merkel might privately have been at Gabriel's trumpet, she does not want her summit to be remembered for a nasty row with Bush. She has worked too hard to smooth over the arguments over Iraq. Nor does she want to provoke even more angry demonstrators trying to get through the 7-mile fence around the Heiligendamm summit site. Green and leftist German bloggers are already making waspish comments about the suitability of this Baltic coastal resort where Hitler once stayed as a site for a summit with Bush.

This is all about managing expectations. The Germans know Bush's limits, and Bush understands Merkel's political need for a deal. The real agreement was reached at the last EU-U.S. summit in Washington when Bush said for the first time that he accepted that climate change is a danger and that human activity is partly responsible. Merkel in return accepted Bush's point that the best way out of this crisis was through technology and innovation.

They are both right. Without some firm and internationally agreed targets to cut emissions, it will be hard to measure progress and to pressure the backsliders. But Bush is right to argue that the Kyoto method has so far not been a great success and that market mechanisms and clean technologies are the real answer.

Expect the two sides to split the difference, sign up for part of one another's agenda and declare the summit a success. This will depend on the readiness of the Indians and Chinese to support the deal. The price of that will be the logical solution that the wealthy G8 countries will agree to facilitate free trade, low license and royalty fees and a very great deal of technological transfer to the rising industrial powers. India and China will be building more than 60 coal-fired power plants a year anyway; the West might as well help pay for them and the fleets of new cars heading for Indian and Chinese roads to be as clean and non-polluting as possible.

An agreement along those lines, with Putin and the Indians and Chinese and Bush and Merkel and Britain's Tony Blair and Japan's Shinzo Abe and France's Sarkozy all beaming in summit solidarity for the cameras and not having to blink away the tear gas will be seen as a success by all, particularly if Sarkozy has some delicious new gossip about their old chum Chirac.

Source: United Press International

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