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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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Even more than retroactively castigating Putin for his rollback of political freedoms, however, the G-8 provides leverage for deterring the Kremlin from future depredations. Building a clear consensus among the other members of the G-8 that Russia cannot continue to participate in the group if Putin remains in power past 2008--when the Russian constitution requires he step down--or if the elections are blatantly rigged would provide a powerful check against the greatest looming threat to Russian democracy.

Establishing a country-neutral, democratic standard for membership in the G-8 would also dash any hopes of Chinese membership for the foreseeable future. Many will no doubt cry foul that the inclusion of China, with its vast and expanding economy, is crucial to making the G-8 more representative of the global balance of power and thus more effective.

But this simply isn't true. First, the assumed connection between representation and effectiveness is highly suspect. To the extent the G-8 actually does help shape policy, it succeeds by providing a forum in which consensus can be built around specific issues. That consensus, in turn, is significantly more likely in a smaller group that is bound by common values.

Furthermore, while there's no denying China's economic clout, it already participates in an expanded gathering of finance ministers and central bankers--the G-20, established in 1999. Regardless, as long as G-8 summits with heads of state are focused on broad-themed global issues, the United States has a clear interest in sending the message that unelected autocrats need not apply. Regardless of Beijing's GDP growth, the absence of political freedoms there should be made a visible constraint on its pretensions to global leadership.

By contrast, the Bush administration can and should champion for a greater Indian role at the G-8. Doing so would not only acknowledge the country's rising profile, but also demonstrate the benefits that accrue to democratic states in the U.S.-led international order. Overt U.S. support for India in the G-8 would also provide tangible evidence of the seriousness of the Bush administration's pledge earlier this year to "help India become a major world power in the 21st century," which is likely to suffer a setback this fall if New Delhi fails to capture a U.N. Security Council seat.

Some have suggested that the conflation of democracy and the G-8 is misguided, since there are already plenty of international organizations--the World Bank, the United Nations, and so on--that already welcome autocratic states. Why should the G-8 be different?

Simply put, because it is. The G-8's function is as a stage for the world's leaders, not to promote trade liberalization or lend money to the developing world. As such, it is incapable of becoming either the superhero of global governance its proponents desire or the villain its detractors fear. But by recognizing its symbolic power as its most salient feature, the United States can effectively take advantage of the G-8 in pursuing its broader set of foreign policy goals. There are times, after all, when style really should trump substance.

Vance Serchuk is a research fellow in foreign policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.