Last week’s G8 summit in Deauville, France, was met with mixed reaction. Some commentators questioned whether it would prove the organization’s last official summit, while others praised the leaders’ group for publishing official accountability reports on summit commitments. In this week’s interview, we speak to CIGI Distinguished Fellow and former Canadian G7/G8 Sherpa Gordon Smith, who says the G8 group retained its relevance in France, and sounds a warning for Canada’s government to rethink its G8 and G20 strategies.

CIGI: Some commentators have called the Deauville summit the G8’s “last hurrah” while others believe that, like a “zombie,” the G8 is back.  Following last week’s summit, how do you weigh into that debate?

Gordon Smith: I don’t think it’s the last hurrah. I suspect the G8 will be with us for a few more years. But nor do I think it is back. I think the G8 was very lucky this year that the Arab Spring took place, and that President Sarkozy had chosen the subject of the Internet. But if you take that subject away — which ought to be discussed in the G20 because China and India are critical players — there really isn’t much  left that is core G8 stuff.

CIGI: You have commented that Egypt and Tunisia urgently need the help of the G8.  Did the Declaration of the G8 on the Arab Springs, asserting the willingness of the group to support transitions to democracy in North Africa and the Middle East, and the US$20-billion package of assistance go far enough?

Smith: It went pretty far. The noticeable thing is how Canada was absent from the process. And I think that’s unfortunate because we shouldn’t assume that the geometry of summitry will remain a G8 and a G20. If you look at the commentary on the G8, most of it said how comfortable the group is. In other words, just eight leaders around the table, plus maybe somebody invited for a brief period, and one adviser behind. It’s better than the G20, with 55 people around the table, and still people in an outer ring.

What I’m worried about is that if the G20 doesn’t work well, a new rabbit could come out of the hat. And that will be about a G8, G9 or G10, working like the G8 now works, but removing countries like Canada and Italy, and adding in some of the bigger countries from the south. So, I think Canada has an enormous interest in making sure that the G20 works. And, for that matter, making sure that the G8 isn’t back. Because if it is, it could get reconfigured without us.

CIGI: What has been the response of non-G8 G20 countries to last week’s summit?

Smith: I haven’t looked systematically, but the references I’ve seen from the Chinese news agency Xinhua are quite interesting. It says that the G8 is a body in decline and the G20 is where the really important economic issues are being discussed. It’s polite, but it clearly says that the G8 is an old body and one that is of declining importance. But it would be an interesting question as to what the reaction has been in India and Brazil. I haven’t seen it, and I do a daily press scan on both the G8 and the G20.

The other thing that complicates life, of course, is Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s problems and the vacancy at the IMF, and people noting that his successor would be discussed by G8 countries, if not in the G8 — that’s an important distinction.

Again, all of this ends up setting the G20 back. It suggests, if you look at the Strauss-Kahn succession, that the G8 thinks it can still control that process. I think Sarkozy has tried to do a bit of damage limitation but that’s the perception out there. I think as long as the G8 is around, it will get into whatever is the issue of the day. That’s fine for the Arab Spring, because something the G9 through 20 don’t particularly want to talk about, certainly not Saudi Arabia. But the risk is that one starts to talk about other international economic questions that really are, properly, the purview of the G20.

CIGI: In your paper, “G7 to G8 to G20: Evolution in Global Governance,” you take a wider, historical view to make the point that effectiveness and legitimacy are the ultimate litmus test for summit geometry.  Can you comment on the Deauville Accountability Reports?

Smith: I know, again from following the media, that NGOs were all over the G8 for not having delivered on all of its commitments, and suspected that some of the statements that were made in the reports were exaggerated, which is probably all true. But the fact is that the G8 is making an effort to go back to its previous commitments and see what is being accomplished and what hasn’t. And sure, one can argue about the way it’s being described, but still, I think it’s a big step forward to attempt accountability.

I think the G8 was very lucky this year that the Arab Spring took place, and that President Sarkozy had chosen the subject of the Internet. But if you take that subject away – which ought to be discussed in the G20 because China and India are critical pla
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.
  • A former Canadian deputy foreign minister, NATO ambassador and G7/G8 Sherpa, Gordon Smith is a leading expert on the evolution of the G20 and global summitry.