G8's credibility problem
Sunday, 13 July 2008

By Shadaba Islam

AS summits go, the annual Group of Eight (G8) extravaganza, bringing together the leaders of the world's richest nations, is arguably the most extravagant, lavish — and frustratingly futile — of events.

Having covered a great many of such global gatherings over the last quarter decade, I can safely say that most summits are more about photo opportunities and media hype than a serious attempt to tackle world problems.
 
EU summit meetings are probably an exception to this general rule. Leaders from the 27-nation bloc meet in Brussels, and sometimes other EU capitals, about four times a year to deal with serious domestic and international challenges.
 
Lately it's been about the ill-fated EU reform treaty/constitution which was first snubbed by French and Dutch voters in 2005 and then given another blow by Ireland last month. The uncertain future of the treaty dominated the EU summit in Brussels in June and will also cast a dark shadow when the bloc's leaders meet again in the Belgian capital in October.
 
If it isn't the treaty, EU leaders tend to use their summits to haggle over money, trade or foreign policy. The gatherings tend to go on into the late hours — and believe it or not, leaders actually engage in real haggling and negotiations. EU meetings can be long and tedious but often there is also real suspense, discussion and, at the end of it all, real decisions.
 
Sometimes, that's even true for the less frequent encounters between leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). At their last summit talks in Bucharest in April, Nato leaders fretted over the alliance's policy in Afghanistan and plans for expansion. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed US demands to grant Georgia and Ukraine immediate Nato membership but agreed that the two states could eventually join the alliance at an unspecified date in the future.
 
G8 summit meetings, in contrast, are little more than symbolic events. So-called sherpas from the world's eight richest nations squabble for months over details of the 10-12 page communiqué that is finally made public by leaders. However, the result of their labours hardly ever surprises.
 
This year's G8 meeting in Hokkaido, Japan, was no exception. Certainly Japanese Prime Minister and G8 host Yasuo Fukuda went out of their way to ensure the meeting ran smoothly. Protesters and journalists were kept away from the highly guarded summit venue where the leaders and their spouses talked, dined and schmoozed for almost three days. Sporadically, they met a selected group of African leaders and their counterparts from China, India and Brazil.
 
But in the end, Messrs George W. Bush, Gordon Brown — and even the ever-active Ms Merkel — failed to deliver the goods on either climate change, rising food and energy prices or the political crisis in Zimbabwe. In addition, the summit once again raised valid questions about the relevance and future of the G8, and why the elite group refuses to allow powerful emerging nations like China, India and Brazil into the fold.
 
Actually, that's not difficult to answer. They may be ailing and ageing fast but Old Guard industrialised nations are not yet ready to abdicate their role and prestige as 'world leaders'. And they definitely do not want to share the spotlight with brash newcomers like India and China.
 
True, most European policymakers agree that it makes little sense to have Italy as a member but to keep out Spain, Poland or Greece. Strange also that Russia is in the club but that China, India and Brazil are only 'outreach' nations which get a partial hearing despite their growing global clout.
 
Others argue, however, that the G8 must remain an exclusive club and that the inclusion of Russia is already troublesome. Diluting the mix still further, they argue, would further erode the authority of the group and lead to even more internal rifts and tensions. The more voices there are round the table, goes the argument, the harder it will be to show effective leadership.
 
Not that such leadership was much in evidence in Hokkaido. Although the seven men and one woman at the summit represented a sizeable chunk of the world's economy, the lack of decisions at the meeting proved that the so-called global leaders have feet of clay.
 
For instance, the G8 statement on Zimbabwe came about as a result of US, British and Canadian pressure for a strong stand against President Robert Mugabe. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the agreement would mean a new UN envoy intervening in the crisis and new UN sanctions against what he called "a criminal cabal" and "an illegitimate regime with blood on its hands".
 
But the fact is that G8 leaders tried but singularly failed to win support from reluctant African leaders. And even before the G8 statement was released, Russian officials were publicly briefing journalists at the summit that Russia was opposed to sanctions against Zimbabwe on the grounds that they would be ineffective and possibly destabilising.
 
As for the climate change statement, G8 leaders loudly hailed their new and firmer 'commitment' to lead a global cut in emissions of at least 50 per cent by 2050. But within hours the agreement had been undermined by China and India and other emerging economies that refused to endorse the targets, arguing that richer nations should carry more of the burden.
 
Meanwhile, the entire embarrassing saga over renewing unfulfilled aid pledges to Africa cast the G8 nations in a poor light. G8 leaders also failed to come up with any firm commitment on keeping protectionism at bay or on combating rising food and oil prices.
 
Their failure to deliver is hardly surprising, however. Current global challenges require strong and decisive leaders. But while they may put up a brave face, almost all G8 leaders have serious credibility problems, both at home and abroad.
 
Prime Minister Fukuda is weak domestically as is Gordon Brown. President Bush is on his way out and France's Nicolas Sarkozy remains little more than an unpredictable showman. German Chancellor Merkel may still be the only credible G8 leader — but even Europe's most powerful politician can't be expected to solve complex global problems on her own.

The writer is Dawn's correspondent in Brussels.

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