The G8 that failed: Syria, Russia and the demise of summitry

The Globe and Mail

June 18, 2013

There are many reasons why the G8 has become a shadow of its former self, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently put his finger on one major limiting factor – the inclusion of Russia, which, under Vladimir Putin, has moved steadily away from the principles of democratic government that underpinned the old G7.

The history of the G8 is instructive in this regard. When the first summit of world leaders took place in Rambouillet, France, in November 1975, it was a summit of six like-minded Western democratic nations – France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and Germany, with Italy added at the last minute – that dealt with a narrow range of economic concerns. Italy’s inclusion prompted U.S. President Gerald Ford to insist on Canada being invited to the second summit, hosted by him in Puerto Rico.

The Rambouillet summit and those which succeeded it had three key objectives: (1) to generate political leadership to resolve pressing economic problems that could not be addressed at the national bureaucratic level; (2) to reconcile the growing tensions of globalization that were creating frictions at the boundaries of domestic policy and the external environment; and (3) to develop a system of collective management of the international system, recognizing that the United States no longer had the capacity or policy reach to deal with a wide range of global challenges.

The purpose of summits, in the words of the distinguished former British diplomat Nicholas Bayne, was to ‘concentrate the mind,’ ‘resolve differences,’ and have a ‘catalytic effect’ on international co-operation.

Today’s summits have fallen well short of these objectives. And as is all too apparent, the G8 club is not composed of like-minded countries because of the inclusion of Russia. Mr. Putin’s authoritarian governance model is at odds with the others. His unflinching support for the Assad regime in Syria contrasts sharply with the G7, who themselves are already somewhat divided over whether to arm the rebels.

Even when macroeconomic issues were too taxing for consensus, political crises of the moment usually gave the G7 leaders a basis for concerted action. Not so this year. The high hopes from the early nineties when Russia first joined have faded over time as has the value of these annual summits.

Russia alone is not to blame for this state of affairs. Effective global diplomacy requires leadership and credibility. Both are in short supply. The absence of China compounds the difficulty, but then even if China were included, its presence would not likely help much on a thorny issue such as Syria.

Neither the Chinese nor the Russians have much appetite to support internal dissent anywhere in case it prompts some echoes at home. What we have in Syria is in fact a civil war with plenty of outside meddling – a situation which needs above all credible, firm diplomacy.

What minimal consensus can be mustered in Northern Ireland will be either on feel-good issues such as pledging funds to alleviate child malnutrition, or high-sounding pledges to expose hidden bank deposits. Laudable as both may be, they are some distance from the original rationale for summitry.

Sadly, the cost of these annual gatherings has increased in inverse proportion to their effect on global stability.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Authors

Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States from 1989 to 1993. He led the Canadian delegation in concluding negotiations of the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement.