Call time on the G8
The Guardian- Tuesday July 25, 2000
By Larry Elliott
The good news for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the other G8 leaders is that Okinawa was no Seattle. Holding their annual shindig on a tropical island, converted for a couple of days into a deluxe version of Alcatraz, did the trick. There were no riots, no violent protests.
The bad news is that the protesters were not needed, because the G8 did their work for them. Seldom in its 25-year history has the meeting of the world's most powerful politicians been greeted with such cynicism and contempt. Bill Clinton pledged $300m in American money to give children in poor countries a free school lunch and the Okinawa summiteers promised extra resources to halt the spread of Aids, but the G8's credibility has hit rock bottom. There have been too many aborted initiatives, too many broken promises, too many vacuous communiques.
Instead of a time for thrashing out problems too big to be solved at a national level, international summits have become a way for politicians to escape their domestic problems. There are carefully staged photo opportunities, warm words and posh dinners, but not much more. Just as the English season has its Wimbledon, its Ascot and its Glyndebourne, so the world of national diplomacy has its own set-piece events - the gathering of finance ministers, the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the G8 itself. For over-priced strawberries and cream on the centre court, read the world's most expensive sushi and saki.
Given that the £500m the Japanese spent on Okinawa would be enough to pay for 12m children to go to school, it is perhaps time to ask whether to save large dollops of taxpayers' money and scrap the G8 summit altogether.
Naturally, it was never supposed to be this way. When the first summit was called at Rambouillet by the then French president, Giscard d'Estaing in 1975, the idea was to have a quiet fireside chat in which world leaders could brainstorm freely without the media in attendance. Giscard wanted to see whether there was a way of forging an international response to the economic crisis triggered by the oil-price shock of 1973-4 and invited four western nations to join France in the most prestigious of diplomatic clubs – the United States, Britain, Germany and Japan.
Later the G5 became the G7 with the addition of Italy and Canada, and in the 1990s post-communist Russia became the eighth member. Russia is there because of its political importance, not its economic strength, and in reality is only a country member of the club.
The G7 countries between them account for more than 70% of the world's output, so they do carry real clout, in theory, at least. But it is remarkable how rarely this power has been exercised. Helmut Schmidt used the 1978 summit in Bonn to urge a coordinated reflation package, which was rendered useless by the second oil shock, but in the 80s, there was broad harmony. Everybody agreed on what the industrialised world should be doing, which was not very much. Government intervention was out, markets were in. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher ruled the roost, and the summits turned into back-scratching media fests.
The Venice summit in 1987 was a case in point. It was held in the frantic week running up to the general election, but Mrs Thatcher found one day in her schedule to strut about on the world stage. The summit was held on an island just across the water from St Mark's square and as the prime minister left on her motor launch, Nigel Lawson was arriving on his to take her place. The two waved to each other as the boats passed. It was never quite the same again for the lady and her chancellor.
In the 1990s, the problems started to mount for the G8 leaders, but they failed to respond to the challenge. When Mikhail Gorbachev came in 1991 looking for money, he left empty handed and there was a coup the next month. Since the Tokyo summit in 1993 when the G8 gave some political impetus to trade liberalisation, there has been virtually nothing of note. Naples in 1994? A bit of debt relief. Lyon in 1996? Cordon-bleu cooking from Paul Bocuse and some other three-star foodie chefs. Birmingham in 1998? Some pledges on debt relief that have not been met. Cologne in 1999? Ditto.
It is tempting, then, to call time on the G8. It is expensive and it doesn't deliver very much. In the business-speak that governs our political discourse, it is inefficient, unfocused, unproductive and cries out to be downsized. A whole industry has grown up around summits, and at any one time there is likely to be a clutch of officials - or sherpas – traveling club class from one capital city to another preparing the ground for the next meeting. Yet when the world teetered on the brink of economic collapse in the autumn of 1998, it was not to Bill Clinton or any other member of the G8 that the world turned to for salvation, but to Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the US central bank.
The sad thing is that the G8 could do much more, and needs to do much more. Over the past decade, the environment, debt, financial instability and the growing gap between rich and poor have become global problems that require global solutions. In Okinawa, the G8 could have decided to back the proposals outlined by the Nobel prize- winning economist James Tobin for a small international tax on financial speculation, using the money raised to fund debt relief, development programmes and environmental protection.
But for years the G8 has lacked what the current brand of diplomats like to call joined-up thinking. Clinton's plan to provide free meals is a case in point. It is fine in theory, but doesn't amount to much when the education charges foisted on poor countries by creditor nations to balance their budgets mean that parents cannot afford to send their children to school. Without extra resources for education, the result of Clinton's initiative - assuming it happens - will be to subsidise the children of better-off parents.
Without some fresh thinking, the G8 is probably on its last legs as an effective body. By 2002, each G7 nation will have hosted the summit four times and that may be the time to put an end to it.
That would be a shame, for three reasons. First, the G8 does have potential to improve global governance, even though it doesn't currently live up to it. Second, if ideas such as the Tobin tax are ever to become a reality, the G8 will be pivotal. Finally, for all its faults, the summit process does mean that the G8 can be held to account. Progress on debt relief has been miserably slow; it would probably have been even slower without the pledges made in Cologne.
Making the G8 more effective would not be difficult. World leaders love targets for teachers, doctors and other public-sector workers. They should apply the same principle to themselves. We should be told what the G8 is supposed to be delivering, how it is proposing to do so, and how cost effective it is. If it is not up to the job of coping with the global roblems that matter, we should give something else a try.