Defending The G8-G20 Summits

There is no doubt that the international arena, which is engraved in our psyche by the means of the post-World War 2 and the post-Cold War archetypes, is changing. Pressure is mounting for international organizations to reflect this change or risk obsolescence. It is now up to young professionals, who have inherited this system, to place their bets on the institutions that will prove most successful in the new system. Surprisingly, this article bets on the informal and the flexible, the G-summits.

Real World Experience 

Leaving the 2012 G8/G20 Youth Summit, I was again struck by a question that has puzzled me in the past. What do the G8, the G20, and all the other G’s, that occasionally pop up in international affairs sections of the most renowned of magazines, actually do? Besides the casual photo opportunities, they are associated with glamorous diplomacy and some of the most fervent riots, so there must be a core purpose which the world should be closely paying attention to or rallying against. Yet, even now, as I am entering my senior year in Political Science, I have only scant, if any, recollection of any academic mention of these G’s that, come every May and June, dominate the headlines more than the most institutionalized international organizations.

So, what is all the G-fuss about?

The answer is simpler than expected. It lies in the very informality, flexibility, and constant evolution that make up the G-meetings’ history and future. These characteristics, that may hint at the irrelevance of possibly the best publicized talk shop, are in fact at the foundation of the G-meetings’ effectiveness at getting things done. The informality, flexibility, and constant evolution allow the G’s to reflect the real distribution of power on the international arena and hence, provide the decisions reached at the summits with realistic applicability, cleared for implementation by the consensus of all major players. The G’s are somewhere in the middle of a spectrum ranging from bilateral diplomatic relations to bureaucratized international institutions, and it is from this special location that arise their successes and their troubles.

The G-Story 

It all began in early 1970s with the 1973 oil crisis and the undoing of the Bretton Woods monetary system which revealed the weakness of the loosely coordinated Western economies relative to the solid OPEC block. With another round of perfectly aged French wine, the G-6 was born to a toast at the Château de Rambouillet, the summer residence of the French president, during the 1975 summit between France, Italy, Japan, UK, USA, and West Germany. It was agreed that, from that moment on, the leaders of the largest industrialized economies would congregate annually at a rotating location among the G-6 members. Soon, Canada was initiated into the exclusive club in 1976, and in 1997, Russia joined, transforming the G-7 into a G-8. Distinct from but concurrent to the G-8, the G-20’s current form is a product of an effort at economic coordination in response to the recent Great Recession.

Meanwhile, with the world’s military and economic balance shifting, pressure for reform is mounting. With organizations, such as the United Nations Security Council, the IMF, and the World Bank holding off against the pressure to adapt, the G’s are releasing the built up steam. For the past few years, the G-8 has been losing the spotlight to the G-20 which gives a fair hearing to China, India, Brazil, and South Africa. This past May, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, “was too busy” to come to Obama’s G-8 Summit at Camp David. Rumors are even spreading of a G-2, reserved for China and the US, not without the European Union jumping in and suggesting a G-3. The G-chaos keeps growing with ever new proposals for a G8 + 5, a new G-13, and even a G-77. This chaos, however, is anything but a sign of weakness.

Shopping for the Right G

The ongoing acceleration of transformations in G-structures is the result of a forum-shopping on the international level, as has been suggested by Daniel W. Drezner’s article on the Viscosity in Global Governance: When is Forum Shopping Expensive?.  Just as litigants in the US can choose between states in a strategy to benefit from different laws in different states, so can nations choose between international organizations in a strategy to maximize their bargaining power or take advantage of some structurally built in benefit. With the proliferation of international institutions, states can benefit from a growing array of options for negotiations. Moreover, the more resources a state has, the more likely it is to get its choice for a forum for bargaining over the choice of a weaker nation.

These power-based pressures also operate in the background and drive the legitimacy of different organizations. With pressure building up for the reform and with reluctance on the part of current holders of power within more formal and less flexible institutions, legitimacy and potential will accrue to the more informal and flexible organizations. Emerging economies, such as India and Brazil, will not gain a permanent seat on the UNSC or gain a greater proportion of votes at the IMF or the World Bank any time soon. However, they can keep pushing for legitimization of the informal and flexible G’s where they can discuss similar issues while holding an equal vote to countries, which hold a structural advantage in other forums.

What is it good for?

This evolution of distribution of relative power internationally may be a cause for alarm, but it can also open up unprecedented opportunities. The rise in the relative legitimacy of the G’s compared to more stagnant organizations could provide more effective solutions to complex international problems. For instance, by increasing the legitimacy and the potential of the G-20 where rising world powers have an equal voice, the rising capabilities of G-20 members will be more available and better utilized for the resolutions of international problems, namely economic and financial crises. There is ample room for the engagement of the emerging powers and clear potential for cooperation on tough international issues. Alienating rising powers by safeguarding the status quo in other international organizations is both counter-productive and dangerous.

It is beyond the focus of this article to discuss criticism leveled at the lack of transparency, absence of accountability, and the general undemocratic feel that may be associated to the G’s, but it would be unfair to ignore these issues. If anything, they are legitimate concerns that the Heads of State should strive to address at their G-summit meetings. Nevertheless, the fact that negotiations happen behind closed doors is not that much different from democratic governments’ cabinets arriving at a consensus behind closed doors. Democratic governments always remain accountable to the official wording of the final communique, so they can also be voted out if their constituencies find an issue with the substance. Finally, as for the undemocratic feel to the whole enterprise, it should be taken note that every state has an equal say and the final communique is non-binding on sovereign nations.

The G’s are more than just a talk shop and are probably worth all the commotion that comes along with every other summit. The G’s are THE stumbled upon mechanism which allows for cooperation to continue on the international arena even when other international institutions are too rigid for necessary reform. The G’s are the zeitgeist of our international arena.