The start of the Group of Eight summit Monday in Toyakocho, Hokkaido, coincides with the Tanabata or "Star" festival, the annual event when the Japanese ask for wishes to be granted. Written on colorful strips of paper, these wishes are hung on the branches of bamboo trees.
Given this tradition, what hopes should we have for Japan's G-8 year?
At a minimum, we should wish for a safely managed event without security breaches or any serious distractions. Granting this wish should be an easy one as no country devotes as much attention and resources to the G-8 as Japan. The Okinawa summit in 2000 had a budget of an estimated 750 million dollars--a particularly lavish amount as it came in the middle of a banking crisis--while protocol was handled flawlessly.
The remoteness of the summit site--the beautiful lakeside resort in Hokkaido--eases issues of security and demonstrations management that have come to symbolize G-8 summit imagery. Every minute detail seems to have been looked after. Gestures to mark the occasion range from the issuing of new 1,000 yen coins to the formal recognition of the Ainu people--located mainly in Hokkaido--as indigenous.
Difficulties in meeting expectations appear, however, once we stretch the wish list to substantive achievements--easily exhausted by a wide set of pressing global issues. Many of these items are all too familiar to the G-8, whether on security (Iraq, Afghanistan) and nuclear nonproliferation (North Korea, Iran) or African development and health issues (as rehearsed at the recent high-profile Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD IV). But what is striking this year is the manner in which so many other concerns have jumped up so dramatically, notably the food crisis, soaring oil prices or sovereign wealth funds.
Amid this scattered agenda, a stubbornly persistent issue remains that of the environment generally and climate change specifically. For Japan to put this item at the top of the priority list is unassailably logical. The home-grown Kyoto Protocol remains the most tangible--if utterly unenforceable--global commitment to emissions reduction targets for a key group of countries. Technically and diplomatically, Japan has been hugely innovative in this area, bringing both the recent multilateral Kobe climate initiative and the clean technology fund concept prominently into play.
Although we sincerely appeal for substantive progress on emissions reductions beyond pleasing declarations, our wish for Toyako is even more ambitious. Climate change should be privileged not merely because of its intrinsic importance in the policy domain, but even more so because it serves as a catalyst for transforming the institutional architecture of the G-8.
In one version of the Tanabata legend, the star-crossed lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi are separated forever by the Milky Way (or Amanogawa river). A similar fate for the major industrial and developing nations assembled at Toyako should be averted. Could the issue of climate change successfully bridge their separate interests and worldviews?
This will depend on the institution's flexibility. The pressures for G-8 reform may bubble up from many sources. Even so, garnering support for reform within the group will always prove difficult (witnessed in other organizational arrangements, with the Irish "No" to the European Union's Lisbon treaty as just the most recent example or, more familiarly, the decades-long impasse over U.N. Security Council enlargement).
The ambitious proposal of a Leaders' 20 (L20) by former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin sought a "big bang" in membership expansion. In the last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown have endorsed G-8 enlargement. Meanwhile, the Heiligendamm Process (established at the 2007 G-8 summit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel) has engaged the Outreach 5 (O5) countries in an officials' level outreach dialogue on a number of substantive issues, including innovation, investment, development assistance and energy policy. Extending through till 2009, this process is facilitated at arms-length from the G-8 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that boasts technical expertise and fills an important mentorship role.
Several solid reasons can be given in favor of the status quo. Yet, reforming the G-8 via a functional or issue-centric formula breaks through this culture of caution. Reform in this manner clearly and rationally explains why certain countries are brought into the G-8 club on a sustained basis. A forum such as the G-8 needs like-mindedness and smallness in its core membership. Yet, to be effective, many "outsiders" are welcomed for portions of the summit.
Pride of place has already been given to the big emerging markets that, not coincidentally, are also the big emitters--China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico--who now form the O5. These countries (and potentially a few others such as Indonesia) have the capacity to break out of the institutional lethargy in which we find ourselves. Leaving some other candidates out of the process can be objectively justified. Egypt or Turkey, for example, might have some credible claims but neither meets the emissions criteria. The third day in Toyako will see a Major Emitters Meeting (MEM-16), supplementing the O5 countries with Indonesia, South Korea and Australia.
The functional route also eases the impending transition in U.S. politics. Focusing on climate change as the catalyst for G-8 reform allows some buy-in from the Bush administration as the MEM-16 notion is borrowed from its Asia-Pacific-6 initiative. It does so, however, without sacrificing a bridge to the next U.S. administration, especially if Barack Obama is elected. One of the few points of agreement between George W. Bush and Obama (even if their recipes for addressing the problem diverge sharply) is on the cast of countries that should be around the table negotiating solutions for climate change. If Bush has his MEM-16, Obama has his proposal for a Global Energy Forum based on the combination of the G-8 and the O5.
Focusing on a functional issue does not come without risks. Above all, negotiations among the G-8 leaders should not get caught up in the technicalities of climate change, as these are not within their strengths or even interests. As on other options for catalytic action (energy or health) it is the ministers, bureaucrats and experts who will drive the precise agenda forward.
That said, the G-8 needs symbolic and tangible successes that revitalize its credibility as both an efficient and a legitimate body. The long communique with its inventory of global issues will be treated as mere pieces of paper--with far less meaning than those placed in bamboo branches during the Tanabata festival. The G-8 is a club whose membership is in need of modification if its swiftly eroding credibility is to be halted. Gaining a success on climate change--and doing it with the countries that are vital for both policy implementation and institutional reinvigoration--will do the G-8 a world of good.
Caution is a virtue, yet it is one that few people will ask for at festival time. Certainly, it is the opposite that we wish for at Toyako. Opportunities such as this for bold action among the world's major leaders do not come too often. Japan has a golden opportunity to move from mere wishful thinking to becoming a star leader through creative and feasible initiatives.