Monday, July 17, 2006

The utter uselessness of G8 meetings

Another G8 meeting has come and gone. There was a massive build-up, occasioned by events – Iraq War, renewed warfare between Israel and its neighbours, high oil prices – as well as, in this case, by the host. For the first time Russia was hosting a G8 meeting, raising the question whether Russia in any case should be a member of the group. Its economy is smaller than that of the Netherlands, whom no-one is seriously proposing for membership. Moreover, the G8 is supposedly a group of democracies, while Russia is showing ever greater signs of moving back towards authoritarianism and intolerance of dissent. And if, in spite of its tiny economy and its undemocratic tendencies, Russia is perceived to be an obvious member of the group, why not China? India? Brazil? And so on.

But there seems to be very little questioning of the annual G8 summits themselves. Do they actually do any good? Or are they, by chance, completely useless.

There are certainly reasons to assume the latter.

Take first the view that these meetings are able useful when it comes to affecting events in the world economy – or in global politics. This is highly doubtful. Most G8 (or previously G7 and before that G6) communiqués are vapid statements of general principles. This is not surprising, as the members will look primarily to their own interests, which usually diverge. On the few occasions when the group has had an effect, such as the Plaza (1985) and Louvre (1987) Accords concerning the strength of the dollar, it can be argued that they simply strengthened already existing trends. Similarly, geopolitical actors tend to take little notice of the G8 on those rare occasions when they agree, unless it anyway suits their own interests.

Moreover, it can be argued that by pandering to the fantasy that politicians can affect world events – economic and political, not to mention climatological and others – the G8 meetings feed politicians’ egos and increase their desire to meddle and micromanage everything in the belief that they can solve global problems. As this is emphatically not true it can be and often is rather harmful.

Moreover, the G8 meetings have grown huge, both in numbers – originally they really were just supposed to be informal meetings of heads of state/government – but also in membership. In addition to the “official” G8 – The United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and Russia – the meetings are now also attended at least in part by the European Union, China, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa. Since there is substantial pressure in advance that the group will issue a suitably unanimous communiqué, this not only ends up being a bland, pre-agreed and meaningless statement. And even for that, it rewards the most intransigent member, who can hold out until its gets its way on whatever issue.

But there is a further issue. Namely, should heads of state/government actually meet each other at all? Philippe de Commynes, advisor first to Duke Charles the Rash of Burgundy and then to his opponent King Louis XI of France (second half of the 15th Century) addresses this issue at length in his Memoirs. His conclusion is that Princes who want to remain friends should not meet. Far better to remain friends from afar and conduct negotiations through intermediaries (who, if necessary, can be disavowed).

There is a great deal of truth in this. Political summits are necessarily brief. The idea that at one of these you can get to know your opponents/colleagues must be one of the more dangerous in politicians’ armoury of swollen egos. Occasionally it may be true. But for every Margaret Thatcher who realises that she could “do business” with Mikhail Gorbachev, there is a George W Bush who says of President Putin “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy.” Not to mention a Neville Chamberlain bringing back “peace for our time” from Munich. Few would, I believe, dispute the view that Winston Churchill, who never met Hitler, had a far better knowledge of him than did Neville Chamberlain – in spite of meeting him. Or, to take a less recent example: historians now tend to agree that a major reason why the Versailles Treaty turned out to be such a disaster, is that President Wilson did not stay aloof in Washington and enforce a treaty based on his 14 Points – which he could have done. By insisting on travelling to Europe to take part in the negotiations, he descended to the same level as Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Orlando et al and lost the moral dominance he previously was perceived to have.

Historical experience, logic and common sense all point in the same direction. The G8 meetings are an expensive and useless, potentially harmful talking shop. They should be abolished.