The Italian G8 Presidency looks like it will get a passing grade for the upcoming G8 L’Aquila Summit, for its ability to use the buzzwords of global governance. At an insider’s briefing hosted by the Aspen Institute Italia yesterday, the Italian G8 Office outlined its goal for the upcoming Summit: to devise a system of global governance that is “open, innovative, fair and sustainable,” that is “open” for trade and investment flows; “innovative” in using new and existing ideas; “fair” in being inclusive and giving attention to emerging and vulnerable countries; and “sustainable” in responding to climate change and promoting environmental protection. The host government has an ambitious list of results it wants to achieve this year, summed up in the following key words: “rules,” “vulnerability,” “effectiveness,” “accountability” and “inclusiveness.”

With regards to “rules,” the Italian G8 Presidency is aiming to lead a Summit that will bring “ethics” back into the global economy; to set principles and standards for the global market; restore confidence in the global economy; and give emphasis to “propriety” and “integrity.” It has been in discussions with the OECD – the so-called “custodian of the principles” – on these ethics-related matters. The Italian Summit, relocated by Italian politicians to the site of a recent earthquake, will focus on “vulnerability,” both those who are vulnerable inside the G8 countries, and the most vulnerable developing countries. With regards to the vulnerable within the Club, the Italian G8 Office has discussed the Summit agenda with trade unions, the ILO and NGOs, and it is also emphasizing more effective development strategies. The L’Aquila Summit is aiming to “provide leadership and guidance on how best to mobilize all resources to support international development.” The idea is L’Aquila as the “People’s Summit.” The Italian hosts are also planning to put “accountability” into the G8 process. The hosts want to review the mandate and previous commitments of the G8; evaluate whether “the 8” are living up to these promises; and put in motion a process for monitoring the longer-term effectiveness of the G8 in meeting its commitments in the range of systemic issues that it addresses, from the economy to water, health, food security, and peace and security. Finally, the hosts are aiming to make L’Aquila a model of “inclusiveness,” with the G8 taking on more than just “outreach.” L’Aquila will have an “expanding format, over the 3 days, and variable geometry”: with “the 8” meeting on Day 1; the G8 meeting with the major emerging economies plus Egypt on Day 2; and the G8 meeting with 40 African country leaders on Day 3. The Italian G8 Office also says that it has consulted many relevant stakeholders to work out the preparatory documents for the Summit. The G8 countries are said to be “willing to take the lead in setting a vision” [read: unlike the “BRIC” countries], with Italy taking lead to launch an accountability process for this Summitry process at the apex of international governance.

But can the G8 deliver on this ambitious list of new and older promises? The Italian Presidency explained that it has coordinated closely with the UK G20 chair to ensure that the two tracks are unfolding in a coherent manner, and when the issue of competition was raised, the G8 Office stressed it is focusing only on delivering a successful Summit in L’Aquila. Analysts nonetheless question whether the G8 and G20 are inevitably in conflict, and already so.

In order for the G8, and this year’s Italian Presidency to achieve the ambitious goals that it are set out for L’Aquila, the Club of traditional powers will have to re-take the lead in global (systemic) governance, to wrestle back the lead from the G20 track. Following the relatively successful London G20 meeting, the G8 now must avoid looking like it is receiving marching orders from “the 20” – especially on the global macroeconomic management issues – traditionally a core area of responsibility and lead for the G7/8. The traditional Club must now avoid the image that they have become the implementing agency for “the 20.”

The Italian Presidency is trying to respond to the leadership challenge by branding the G8 as “the forum though which countries with common values and principles take responsibility and lead by example to solve the most pressing global challenges.” Without getting into the matter of whether Russia exhibits a similar “likemindedness” with the “other 7,” does the G7 have the ability to “take responsibility” and “lead by example” on matters of global systemic magnitude? Have they demonstrated such ability amid the current global economic downturn? The sizable recent financial contributions of Brazil, Russia and China to the IMF – especially relative to the contributions from the G7 – would seem to indicate that the international reality may not quite match up with the bold rhetoric of the G8 Presidency.

Among experienced “G” analysts, there are many who now see it as unlikely that the G8 will be able to wrestle back global leadership from the G20 process. Despite the efforts of this year’s hosts to offer up a full day of talks between the G8 and “the G5,” the reality of the G8-led process is “equal for one day out of three.” Key members of “the 5,” including powerhouse China, have still recently referred to the G8 process as an “exclusive” one regardless of the spin on inclusion. Together with the Indian and Brazilian leaders, “the 3” continue to call attention to the legitimacy crisis of the G7/8. Longtime “G” observers are now speaking of the Italian Summit as the first post-G8 Summit. Others are hanging onto the hope that whatever de facto leader the Club chooses (i.e., the United States), it will be a formula in which the weaker members in the current 8 are still included. With the United States gradually reorienting its overarching strategic priorities toward the East, toward Asia, there is an air of uncertainty surrounding the current G8 mechanism. And the question of the future of the G8 may not be resolved until after the upcoming Pittsburgh G20.

With these constraints in mind, it would be very reasonable for the Italian G8 Presidency to stay focused on achieving the accountability innovations, arguably with respect to the climate change and aid mobilization efforts measures it is wishing to introduce in L’Aquila.