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.

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.

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