When the Group of Eight (G8) leaders convene at Camp David, Maryland, from 18 to19 May, most analysts will focus on the summit agenda and its outcomes. There are, however, broader questions to consider about the G8’s future role as a global steering body.
The G8 originated with a 1975 summit of leaders from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. It became the G7 the following year when Canada joined. The eighth member, Russia, was added in 1998.
From the late 1970s to the early 2000s, the G7/G8 was considered a, if not the, leading forum of international decision-making. Media coverage of the annual summits, and the growing number of protesters, stakeholders and non-member nations that gathered at them, reflected the group’s influence on global affairs.
This changed significantly in 2008.
Global financial and economic crisis
The 2008–2009 global financial and economic crisis accelerated and accentuated changes in the power structure of the international system that had been under way for years. The previous two decades had seen a greater diffusion of economic power among developed countries and emerging economies. This shift of economic weight in turn affected the architecture of global governance.
When world leaders were grappling with the crisis, they turned to the newer G20 as the best existing international forum to coordinate a response.
Following the first G20 meeting ever held at the leaders’ level, in November 2008, Brazil’s president argued that “the G8 doesn’t have any more reason to exist, in other words, the emerging economies have to be taken into consideration in today’s globalized world.”
A year later, G20 leaders meeting in Pittsburgh designated that group “the premier forum for [their] international economic cooperation.” Many observers subsequently predicted the imminent decline, if not death, of the G8.
Strengths and weaknesses
The G8 is dominated by Western powers. It was created to assemble the world’s advanced industrialized democracies in a format where they could forge a cooperative approach to global economic crises. Over the years, its scope broadened to include most major international policy areas.
By contrast, the G20 includes the G8 countries and key emerging economies and regional powers: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and the European Union.
The G20 was created in 1999 in response to the 1997–1998 financial crisis in Asia, which eventually spread to Russia and countries in Latin America. Until 2008, it had operated as a forum of finance ministers and central bank governors from key economies.
The G20’s composition reflects the view that in an increasingly globalized world, the nations that have the capacity and inclination to contribute to the management of transnational problems must be at the table. Emerging powers are more likely to assume responsibilities of global governance, and work to implement decisions adopted by global bodies, if they have a say in how the international system is managed.
Nevertheless, despite its diminished global importance, the G8 has continued and has recently even been somewhat revitalized.
In part, the G8 continues to be necessary as it brings together like-minded and advanced industrial nations in a smaller, more cohesive forum where agreement on contentious issues is easier.
The G20’s larger membership has reportedly made it a very formal forum. This fact is in contrast to one of the key advantages of the G8 as a group where leaders can interact directly in a more personalized setting.
The G20 played a critical role in forging a collective response in the acute stages of the 2008–2009 economic crisis. Since then, however, it has arguably struggled to shift to addressing longer-term structural issues facing the world economy. This may be indicative of the challenges it would face should it be tasked with addressing a broader range of issues.
Since 2008, it has seemed that a division of labour may be emerging, whereby the G20 would address all economic issues, while the G8 would tackle security, human rights and development.
However, the leaders’ declaration from the 2011 G20 summit links its overarching economic objectives to development. Thus, the need to clarify how the two groups should co-exist remains.
Yet those seeking well-defined roles and responsibilities should not hold their breath. As Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has written: “Multilateralism in the 21st century is, like the century itself, likely to be more fluid and, at times, messy than what we are used to.”