G8 Countries Are Less Powerful This Year

In the good old days, summit meetings were held in big cities—London, Tokyo, Venice, Toronto, Paris and so on. Ever since the 2001 meeting in Genoa, which attracted more than a quarter of a million protesters, the leaders of the Group of Eight have held their yearly confabs in ever-more remote locations. When leaders met in the resort town of Heiligendamm, Germany, last year, only 25,000 protesters showed up. This year's meeting, in Toyako on Hokkaido Island, has so far drawn far fewer. The resort strategy appears to be working.

Of course, there might be another reason why fewer protestors are bothering with this year's G8 summit: It matters less. It's not hard to see why. Half of the leaders involved—Gordon Brown, George W. Bush, Yasuo Fukuda and Nikolas Sarkozy—are deeply unpopular at home. Beyond these individuals, however, the G8 countries are simply less powerful than they used to be. At this rate, a philosophical question might be in the offing: What if the great powers held a summit and no one cared?

To understand the ways in which the G8 has slid into senescence, consider the crisis issues affecting the global economy. Simply put, there are several markets that do not seem to be working terribly well. In energy, prices have been increasing for quite some time, but this has yet to lead to new reserves or alternative sources of energy. Part of the problem is that increasingly, government entities like national oil companies control existing energy reserves. In an odd twist on global markets, sovereign wealth funds have helped prop up the titans of global finance. The skyrocketing price of food—and the protests this generates—has encouraged governments from Argentina to Egypt to Vietnam to restrict their exports, turning a problem of tight margins into a desperate search for food security. Lurking in the background, of course, is a global market that does not truly exist: Until the global economy prices greenhouse gas emissions into its daily operations, then the problem of global warming has no viable solution.

Can the G8 effectively address any of these problems? Not really, which is why the focus at Toyako has been on Zimbabwe and development aid. The rising price of fuel and food is due to the fact that the G8 economies are no longer the only locomotive fueling global growth. China and India are growing even faster, and their ever-increasing demand for commodities has caused prices to rise quickly. Since they are not G8 members, however, there is little the club as it is now constituted can do on its own.

One possible solution is to change the membership. Why not invite these countries along for the ride? This is beginning to take place. In recent years the host country has held "outreach events" to include other countries. This year, Japan invited China, Australia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa.

There are several roadblocks to making the G8 relevant again. First, it is not entirely clear that the advanced industrialized states want new members. The last time a country was added was Russia in 1997. Sen. John McCain might be impolitic in suggesting that Russia be kicked out of the club, but most diplomats would concede that it was a mistake to admit them in the first place.

Second, it is not entirely clear that these countries want to join this club at this particular time. Joining the G8 indicates a willingness to shoulder responsibility for the world's problems. China and India will not join alone; they are paranoid about being ganged-up on in a rich man's club.

Expanding the G8 even more risks paralysis. In theory, a concert of great powers can still foster cooperation. In practice, as the number of powerful actors increases, the likelihood of meaningful cooperation declines. The unending Doha round is obvious evidence of this. One reason the Doha round of world trade talks has stalled out is that the number of countries with "veto power" has increased.

Caviar, smoked salmon and sea urchin will be consumed as the eight leaders chat about the food crisis. Teeth will be gnashed about the warming climate. Some bland communiqués will be issued. But not much else will happen at Toyako. At this rate, the leaders might become nostalgic about the good old days when these summits caused exchange rates to tremble. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the only thing worse than people protesting a summit is people deciding not to care.