Monday, June 17, 2013

Does the G8 Still Matter?

The G8 summit, taking place this week in Northern Ireland, represents a yearly gathering of 8 of the world’s 11 most wealthy countries. Every year, world leaders from the Group of 8 meet to discuss primarily the global economy, but also pressing topics such as terrorism, world food supply, and this year, the Syrian conflict. Representing 50.1 percent of the world’s total GDP, there is no question that these eight countries hold more sway than most. Yet in the face of deep divisions between members such as Russia and the US, as well as the absence of China, India, and Brazil, does the G8 truly still have relevance in today’s world?

Perhaps the greatest sign of the G8’s outmoded membership is the lack of three out of the four BRICs: Brazil, India, and China. Representing the sixth, ninth, and second largest GDPs in the world respectively, any group determining global policy without their input seems a bit stuck in the past, especially with respect to China. Recently, both the UK and France have expressed their desires to have a G8 + O5 or Outreach 5 expansion. The O5 includes the three countries above as well as South Africa and Mexico.

Besides the obvious narrow scope of membership, the G8 also experiences the normal coordination and delivery problems of other international organizations. In 2009’s summit, for instance, the global food supply was the central issue. Although the member states pledged $20 billion towards the issue by 2012, only 22 percent of that has actually been delivered. Similar issues of funding and lack of agreement have arisen over technology transfers, trade deals, and humanitarian issues. Today, a lack of trust also became very apparent when The Guardian released reports of the UK spying on its guests at the 2009 G20 summit, including by going through their emails and accessing their Blackberries. Even Turkey, distracted by its own massive protests, called the acts "a scandal" if they are proven to be true. Since the UK is also the host of the G8 summit, suspicion remains that communications by member states may not remain as secret as they wish.

Given these limitations, the goals put forward by the 8 powers for this year’s summit seem lofty. The first issue to be addressed is, of course, Syria. Just two days ago, the US confirmed that government forces have used chemical weapons on a limited scale, resulting in 100-150 deaths. Despite the low (and likely incomplete) death toll, Pres. Obama announced that the US would expand the scope of its support to the rebels, probably to include more small arms and ammunition.

Russia, the longtime patron of Pres. Bashar al-Asad, has condemned the move as providing aid to terrorists. Its Foreign Ministry pledged to prevent any country from instituting a “no-fly zone” on Monday as the G8 leaders gathered in County Fermanagh to begin the summit. Despite hopes by UK Prime Minister David Cameron that the UK could work to find “common ground” with Russia over Syria in terms of humanitarian aid and a peace conference, observers should not hold their breath waiting for some form of agreement or compromise, two things West and East have not proved very adept at achieving in this conflict. 93,000 people have died in Syria so far, and over 6 million people have been forced from their homes, yet even this is not enough to push Russia and the Western nations of the G8 to find Cameron’s hoped-for “common ground.”

Yet the G8 could still set the foundations for a long-anticipated US-EU free trade agreement that would go a long way towards propping up both of the largest economies in the world (taking the EU as a single economic bloc). Largely targeted at lowering tariffs across the board and harmonizing regulations, it is projected to create 2 million jobs on both sides of the Atlantic if implemented. PM Cameron called it a “once-in-a-generation prize” and Pres. Obama identified it as “critical” to the recovery of the global economy. Significant apprehensions remain in some EU countries such as France, leaders are hopeful that the deal will be struck within a year. Given the record of the G8 at achieving its goals in the past, the deal would represent one of the greatest achievements in its history. That is, if it actually comes into being.

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