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Symbolism and Substance at the G-8

What the G-8 can--and can't--do.

12:00 AM, Jul 11, 2005 • By VANCE SERCHUK
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LAST WEEK'S TERRORIST ATTACKS in London cast a pall over the meeting of the G-8 heads of state in Gleneagles. The bombings instantly overshadowed the summit's scheduled talks, an intrusion of history--in all its barbarism and violence--into what would otherwise have been a carefully-managed and choreographed summit.

The immediate response of the G-8 to the attacks was an impressive display of resolve and solidarity, with Tony Blair theatrically flanked by his fellow leaders. But the joint declaration also illuminated something fundamental, if frequently overlooked, about the nature of the G-8 as an international institution: namely, that it is much stronger on symbolism than on substance.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In prosecuting the war on terror and shaping the global balance of power, appearances can be as important as hard facts. But as proposals circulate for retooling the G-8 to address its failings and limitations, it's useful to recognize what these gatherings can and cannot be expected to accomplish vis-à-vis America's national interests.

One popular line of criticism leveled at the G-8 concerns the absence of "action forcing" commitments and the lack of continuity from summit to summit. This year, Tony Blair wanted to talk about Africa and climate change; last year, George W. Bush put the Middle East's democracy deficit at the top of the agenda; and next year, with Russia at the helm of the G-8's rotating presidency, Vladimir Putin will push his own set of interests to the forefront. Thus by its very structure, the G-8 is inclined to treat global problems like fashions, to be picked up one season and dropped the next, handicapping the chances for effective follow-up.

Admittedly, there's a great deal of truth to this analysis, but it misses the more important and immutable reality about the G-8. Unlike other international institutions, the G-8 is an activity, not an organization. There is no G-8 secretariat, no G-8 headquarters, no G-8 diplomats with immunity from parking tickets. Rather, the G-8 is--and should remain--a grand salon, an informal talk shop for global leaders. It is, in short, an elite club.

The limited nature of the G-8 has prompted some conservatives to argue that the United States should quash its pretensions of serving as an agent of global governance and downsize its agenda to more modest proportions. But to the extent the G-8 is ultimately about symbolism, it actually provides an ideal mechanism for the Bush administration in reinforcing democratic norms in international behavior and, to a lesser extent, in managing great power relations.

In particular, the G-8 is vested with what Robert Cooper, Tony Blair's foreign policy guru, calls "the lure of membership." Cooper coined this phrase to describe the European Union, whose expansionary impulse and "magnetic" draw, he has argued, exerts a liberalizing influence along its periphery. This dynamic is by no means unique to the E.U. Other international organizations and networks--with varying degrees of institutionalization--also illustrate this principle. The desire to join NATO, for instance, prompted a raft of Central and Eastern European states to stomach otherwise unthinkable reforms of their civil-military relations; the prospect of membership in the World Trade Organization, similarly, has pushed countless states to revamp their trade policies.

The membership of the G-8 is, of course, far more exclusive than the E.U. or the WTO, and the list of any prospective additions is restricted to a handful of rising heavyweights like China, India, Brazil, Mexico, and Australia. And in the realm of international politics, a seat at the G-8--whether deservedly or not--is a prized status symbol, an indicator of geopolitical significance.

Just ask Russia. Boris Yeltsin campaigned hard for inclusion--the awarding of a symbolic seat to Moscow in 1997 was a reward for the Kremlin's acquiescence to the eastward expansion of NATO--and Vladimir Putin is visibly relishing the prospect of hosting next summer's summit in Saint Petersburg. Membership in the G-8 remains a point of considerable national pride in Moscow, tangible proof that, despite the Soviet collapse, the country retains its international stature.

THINKING ABOUT the G-8, then, really requires us to ask the question, what should it take to be accepted as a global leader? In the case of Russia, membership in the club was conditioned on the belief that the country was moving during the 1990s toward liberal democracy and free market capitalism. As Putin has reconsolidated power in the Kremlin, it is therefore appropriate to demand, as Senator John McCain and others have, whether Russia belongs at Gleneagles.