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The G8 Proves Its Relevance

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program
May 27, 2011

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This week's summit in Deauville, France, testified to the enduring vitality of the Group of Eight (G8), which many had given up for dead. The United States will continue to rely on this exclusive grouping of likeminded advanced market democracies in directing diplomatic attention and material resources to the world's most difficult political and security issues. The summit's most important achievement was its solidarity in responding to the turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East with moral clarity and the promise of concrete assistance.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, most assumed the more encompassing Group of Twenty (G20)--which unites the world's big developed and developing nations--would eclipse the G8 as the world's premier multilateral steering group. In fact, a more complicated division of labor is emerging. The G20 is the obvious forum for macroeconomic coordination. But the G8 retains distinct advantages in discussing matters of "high politics," including human rights, peace, and security.

The G8's value as a pillar of multilateral cooperation is both symbolic and practical. Today, the norms and rules of the Western liberal order are being tested by the rise of the "rest," including nations such as China, India, and Brazil. In fact, the G8's role as an anchor of Western order has only grown in importance as emerging countries form their own configurations, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), to India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA), to the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).

With the partial exception of semi-authoritarian Russia--unwisely added in the 1990s--G8 members are bound by similar world views, shared values, and joint strategic interests. This likemindedness facilitates common policy preferences on matters of human rights, humanitarian intervention, rogue states, and regional stability. The wealthy members of the G8 also possess distinctive assets--financial, diplomatic, military, and ideological--they can deploy in service of their convictions.

The Deauville summit revealed the G8's continued vigor. The assembled leaders blasted the North Korean regime for its provocative behavior, insisted that Iran comply with UN Security Council and IAEA Board of Governors resolutions, and condemned Robert Mugabe's continued repression in Zimbabwe.

The G8's role as an anchor of Western order has only grown in importance as emerging countries form their own configurations, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to India-Brazil-South Africa, to the BRICS.

But the centerpiece of the Deauville summit, as expected, was the G8's Declaration on the Arab Spring. On the heels of Obama's major May 19 speech on the recent Arab awakening, G8 members promised material and political support to Tunisia and Egypt, including financial assistance and debt relief from the United States, Europe, the IMF, and the World Bank, conditioned on continued progress towards democratization. It is hard to envision such a productive multilateral response within the G20, with China--much less Saudi Arabia--in the same room

The G8 partners also showed welcome solidarity on Libya, despite tensions within the Western alliance and disagreements with Russia over the scope of NATO military operations. In the run-up to Deauville, Moscow had complained bitterly that NATO's goal of regime change grossly exceeded the UN mandate. France and Britain, meanwhile, pressed the United States to deploy major air assets like A-10 Warthogs and C-130 gunships to sustain intensified military operations, in the face of wavering political support of European publics for a prolonged campaign.

Papering over these differences, the communiqué took an unequivocal stand: "Qaddafi and the Libyan government have failed to fulfill their responsibility to protect the Libyan population and have lost all legitimacy. He has no future in a free democratic Libya. He must go." The G8 also showed commendable unity of purpose on Yemen, insisting that President Saleh promptly relinquish power, and on Syria, condemning the Assad regime's brutal crackdown, on peaceful protests, which overcame Russian resistance to external intervention on this issue.

It is an unwritten rule, apparently, that summit communiqués must cover a vast terrain. The final Deauville communiqué was no exception, touching on virtually every global subject but the upcoming NBA championship. G8 leaders offered a vigorous defense of Internet freedom, recommitted themselves to action on climate change and biodiversity, proposed steps to improve nuclear safety in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, pledged progress on nonproliferation, and proposed steps to build a "knowledge economy" and reduce unemployment in their own countries.

With respect to the global economy, where it now takes a backseat to the G20, the G8 expressed confidence on global economic recovery while reiterating the need to address the U.S. fiscal imbalances, the sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone, and broader global imbalances. The summit also provided yet another opportunity to reaffirm the G8's commitment to the long-stalled Doha Development Agenda, without giving much ground for optimism. Indeed, G8 officials privately vented frustration at foot-dragging by emerging powers. They "were negotiating as if they were still in the early stages of industrial development," officials said, when in fact their economies had been utterly transformed, obliging them to make greater concessions to competition and liberalization. More practically, the G8 promised to complete negotiations on Russia's WTO accession by the end of the year.

The summit also underlined the G8's continued relevance for global development. True, the G20 has increasingly stepped into this field, most notably at the Seoul summit of November 2010, along with several nontraditional donors. But when it comes to mobilizing foreign aid resources, the OECD--responsible for more than 95 percent of official development assistance--is where the big action remains. And OECD donors--the biggest of which are in the G8--have internalized critical norms of "good" development cooperation, (including the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action). These policies thus stand in stark contrast to China's mercantilist, "no strings attached" approach, which has threatened to undermine good governance in poor countries. Pushing back on that approach, G8 leaders in Deauville showcased their partnership with emerging democratic leaders in Africa. Responding to intense criticism (NYT), they also promised greater accountability in delivering on aid commitments--acknowledging they had fallen short of their 2005 pledge to double foreign assistance by a whopping $19 billion.

In a world of complex interdependence and expanding transnational challenges, it is illusory to imagine that any single multilateral institution or framework--whether the United Nations or the G20--will be able to handle it all. "Messy multilateralism," as CFR President Richard N. Haass has described it, will be the order of the day. For the United States, this means following a "horses for courses" approach--selecting the multilateral forum most appropriate to the task(s) at hand, tailored to U.S. objectives, sensitive to U.S. freedom of action, and likely to be effective. On these criteria, alone, the G8 needs to remain in America's institutional stable.

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