The Group of Eight (G8) refers to the group of eight highly industrialized nations--France, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Japan, United States, Canada, and Russia--which hold a yearly meeting, the G8 Summit. Meetings are intended to foster consensus on global issues such as economic growth and crisis management, global security, energy, and terrorism. Because the G8 is limited in its membership and unable to force its members to comply with the summit's policies and objectives, some experts question its overall effectiveness.
When the group was originally formed in 1975, it was known as the G6, with France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States participating. The original group was intended to provide major industrial powers of the non-communist world a venue in which to address economic concerns, which at the time included inflation and the recession sparked by the oil crisis of the 1970s. Cold War politics also invariably entered the group's agenda soon after its founding.
Currently, the G8 comprises its six charter members, in addition to Canada, which joined in 1976, and Russia, which became a formal member in 1998. The EU is a "non-enumerated" ninth member. Leaders from other countries are invited to the summit, but they are not participants. This has led to criticism of the G8 from some quarters as an outdated, U.S.-dominated institution which fails to reflect the views or importance of vast economies like those of India, Brazil, China, and Mexico.
While there are no formal criteria for membership, member nations are generally expected to have highly-developed economies and be democracies. The G8, unlike the United Nations, is not an organization or institution, and there is no formal charter or secretariat.
Russia and the G8
Russia joined the group formally in 1998 after years of gradual involvement and steps toward democratization. With the Cold War over, several world leaders--particularly President Bill Clinton--encouraged Russia's inclusion. Experts say it was more of a gesture toward then President of Russia Boris Yeltsin than anything else, since Russia was neither a fully-realized economy nor a Western-style democracy. The G8 nations decided to let Russia have the presidency for the 2006 term.
Russia's membership in the G8 is a contentious issue. Since the G8, however informally, was intended as a forum for industrialized democracies, Russia's drift toward a more authoritarian state in the past few years has raised concerns among foreign governments within the G-20 and NGOs.
Referring to a report on the lack of governmental action taken on racist crimes, Irene Khan, Amnesty International's secretary general, said, "It is time for the Russian authorities to address the country's deteriorating human rights record and live up to their international obligations if they seek to be international players."
The G8's Efficacy and Influence
Opinions vary on the G8's influence. The G8 issues numerous statements, makes various commitments, and draws attention to certain issues, but experts say that most of the group's achievements are on a small scale and made behind the scenes. Joseph Nye, professor of international relations at Harvard University, says the G8 "gets the bureaucracies to focus," and John Kirton, director of the University of Toronto's G8 Research Group (which analyzes each summit), notes that commitments and compliance have increased over the years. This increase, however, coincides with a decrease in the combined economic power of the G8 nations. In 1975, the G8 nations constituted 55 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP); by 2004, this figure had decreased to 44 percent.
Regardless of waning influence, James Goldgeier, CFR's adjunct senior fellow for Europe studies, says the G8 was not designed to have much political impact to begin with; for political change, he says, more countries would need to be involved.
Criticism of the G8
Criticism of the G8 extends well beyond Russia's questionable membership. Summits are often the target of anti-globalization protests. Some critics argue that the exclusivity of the group results in a focus on the needs of industrial rather than developing countries and that if actions are taken for the latter, they are inadequate. But Daniel Tarullo, a professor of law at Georgetown and President Clinton's former representative at several G8 summits, points out that the G8 wasn't intended to decide development policies. Another common criticism is the G8 is all talk and the summit just a photo-op, but, as noted above, the forum has allowed for leading nations to focus and aim for consensus on a variety of issues.
Perhaps most significantly, the G8's relevancy has come into question. Richard Haass, CFR's president and former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, writes in a 2005 Financial Times op-ed that while it has an important role, "the G8 is increasingly an anachronism. No one today would propose an annual meeting that includes Canada (population of 31 million, gross domestic product of $870 billion), Italy (58 million and $1,200 billion), and Russia (144 million and $615 billion) but not China (1.3 billion and $1,650 billion) and India (1.1 billion and $650 billion)."
In Global Governance Reform, published in 2007, two Brookings Institution fellows caution that "[w]ithout reconstituting the [G8] summit into a larger, more representative group of leaders, with a new mandate to provide strategic guidance to the system of international institutions, the world will fall further behind in addressing global challenges."
Expanding the G8
China and India, up-and-coming economic powers, are notable omissions from the G8, and some say they should be included. As Haass argues, "the G8 needs to become the G10. Both China and India deserve a seat." Such additions, he says, would be beneficial for all. China's inclusion, of course, would clearly mean the end of the G8 as a forum for leading democracies. As Mark Medish writes in The Globalist in 2006, "If China were one day included, as some advocate in view of its enormous economic weight, then Russia would begin to look downright Western in political terms."
China and India do belong to the G-20, a forum of finance ministers and central bank governors created by the then-G7. The G-20 includes nineteen of the world's largest economies in addition to the European Union. The inaugural meeting of the G-20 took place in December 1999. Since then, G-20 meetings have taken place yearly.
The G-20 Finance Summit
In November 2008, the heads of G-20 states met in Washington for the first time. The summit, dubbed Bretton Woods II by the media, was called to discuss the 2008 global financial crisis. According to the Brookings Institution, the G-20 Summit was a "European initiative, promoted by French President Sarkozy and U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown."
The next G-20 Summit in London is scheduled for April 2009. In preparation for the G-20's second heads-of-state meeting, the body created working groups to execute the summit's objectives. The G-20's action plan for reform created by the 2008 Washington summit pledged to implement the following:
- strengthening transparency and accountability;
- enhancing sound regulation;
- promoting integrity in financial markets;
- reinforcing international cooperation;
- and reforming the international financial institutions.