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Walker's World: Why not scrap the G8?

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only
by Martin Walker
Paris (UPI) Jul 7, 2008
The Group of Eight summit meetings have become almost tiresomely predictable, on both sides of the fence.

From deep within their secure and closeted meeting halls, the leaders of the great powers will issue sonorous statements about the need to relieve the debt and improve the prospects of poor countries, solemn promises to get serious about climate change and energy policies and financial imbalances. These will all have been drafted in advance by their staffs.

From outside the secure area, respectable non-governmental organizations will issue equally sonorous statements accusing the G8 of paying too little attention to whatever problem is each particular NGO's specialty. They will issue fact sheets proving their point. The less respectable NGOs will organize protests that may turn into riots.

Some of the vast numbers of media in attendance secretly hope for riots, because otherwise the entire event is far too tedious to win sufficient air time to justify their travel costs.

The G8 summits have become the modern-day equivalent of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where the Renaissance monarchs of France and England sought to out-impress one another with the lavishness of their retinue. The real significance of the event was that it took place. Nothing memorable was done or decided.

So it will be with this week's summit in Hokkaido, Japan. The real question will be about the qualifications for attending the meeting itself, whether China or India or Brazil should join the august ranks.

That raises the second question, whether Canada and Italy are still economically powerful enough to merit their places and whether the Europeans who currently occupy four of the seats ought to reduce their numbers to a single EU seat to represent the European Union.

That in turn raises the third question, whether Russia is democratic enough to remain a member. And if democracy is to be a criterion of membership, then China might not deserve a place but India and Brazil probably would.

In the context of the G8, the latest World Bank ratings of countries by GDP are worth considering. The Top 20 read as follows, and the numbers represent GDP in trillions of dollars:

1. USA 13.811 2. Japan 4.376

3. Germany 3.297

4. China 3.280

5. Britain 2.728

6. France 2.562

7. Italy 2.107

8. Spain 1.429

9. Canada 1.326

10. Brazil 1.314

11. Russia 1.291

12. India 1.171

13. South Korea 0.969

14. Mexico 0.893

15. Australia 0.822

16. Netherlands 0.754

17. Turkey 0.657

18. Belgium 0.449

19. Sweden 0.444

20. Indonesia 0.433

The numbers are clear. The current G8 countries, with the glaring exception of China, represent the major economies. But Spain, Brazil and India have a strong case for membership, unless Canada, by far the smallest economy among the current members, is to remain in the club.

It is also apparent that all of the other 18 countries on that list have a better claim to be democracies than China, and most have a better case than Russia.

Most evident of all is that the global economy is a dynamic system in which countries constantly rise and fall, in the way that the BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China have done, and the way that Turkey, Mexico and South Korea are following suit.

But despite this dynamism, most rich countries stay rich. A similar list drawn in 1900 would have included the United States and Britain, Germany and France, and Russia and Italy.

And the GDP figures conceal an extraordinary disparity in wealth per head. The Netherlands with 16 million people and Sweden with just 9 million are up there in the ranks of top economies with countries whose populations are up to a hundred times larger.

So if G8 membership is based on various disparities, that's the way the world economy happens to be shaped, for better or worse.

As in the case of the U.N. Security Council, there is a strong case for a different system reflecting modern realities, with a top table that would include the United States and the EU, Japan and China, Brazil and India and Russia. That would be a reasonable balance of economic size and population.

But then, any reform of the U.N. Security Council probably would lead to a similar grouping, and do we really want the world's top table for economies to be the same as the world's top table for international politics (if that is what we want the Security Council to become)?

And it is seldom a good idea to get rid of longstanding institutions that have proved to be useful, just because the rules on which they were based are out of date. Is the G8 still sufficiently useful to pass such a test?

On occasion it has marked a real change in the way the world thinks about economics. The best examples are the managed devaluation of the dollar in 1985, the cautious welcome of Russia after 1990, and the Gleneagles summit of 2005 on relieving Africa's debt. A case might be made for last year's event, which signaled the overdue acceptance by the United States of the need for coordinated international action on climate change.

And any of the world leaders who have taken part in these events will say there is no substitute for the chance of spending a couple of days in the company of one's peers, getting to know them across the conference and dinner table and taking their measure over breakfast or in the brief chats in the corridors.

Since we lost the monarchies of old Europe, royal weddings and funerals no longer play that useful role of providing an excuse for social gatherings of the world's ruling class. The G8, for all its faults and weaknesses, is the nearest we have to a replacement. And on the whole, it is better for the leaders of the world's leading economies to know one another personally than not.

Still, with the Japanese spending a reputed $562 million to host the event, it hardly comes cheap.

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Bush, Sarkozy fought fiercely at last G8: Abe
Tokyo (AFP) July 6, 2008
US President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had "fierce" arguments at last year's Group of Eight summit, Japan's then premier Shinzo Abe said Sunday.

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