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The Three-Ring Summit

SOURCE: AP/Peer Grimm

Stephen Harper of Canada, U.S. President Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy gather for a group photo prior to the G-8 Summit in L'Aquila, Italy on July 8, 2009.

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By all accounts, planning for the upcoming Group of 8 Summit-polooza in Italy has been disastrous. Complex logistics are one problem. Ever since Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi decided to allow PR considerations to trump sanity and move the location of the summit to earthquake-stricken L’Aquila, tremor measurements and evacuation plans have dominated the news coverage.

Another cloud is Berlusconi the man, who has been plagued by multiple scandals, the most recent involving very young women with very few clothes. But the underlying trouble is the G-8 itself. The world simply needs a different set of countries at the high table of global governance to tackle today’s challenges.

Inertia is the mother of this G-8 summit. It is occurring because the member countries—the United States, Germany, Japan, France, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, and Italy—agreed a number of years ago that it would. Over the years, though, the G-8 has lost credibility because it does not reflect the realities of power, influence, and capacity in the world today. For that and other reasons, the G-8 has not been able to effectively address today’s global problems.

Yet the G-8 is the only leaders forum the world has had. So the staged meetings, the scripted communiqués, and the photo-ops have carried on, with only the occasional deliverable to interrupt the flow.

That changed in late 2008, when President George W. Bush brought the Group of 20 to life at the leaders’ level, recognizing that China, India, Brazil, and other major economies needed to be at the table to plan a coordinated response to the global economic crisis. In response, Italy this year decided that instead of giving up the G-8 host prerogative—the political equivalent of a cheetah giving up its prey—it announced it would also invite the G-20 countries to meet alongside the G-8. That idea was later pushed aside and the three-day summit now includes meetings of the G-8, the G-8 plus emerging economies, the Major Economies Forum (17 countries), and the G-8 plus emerging economies plus leaders from select African countries. That’s a lot of Gs.

The most valuable commodity in international politics—leaders’ time, especially President Barack Obama’s time—is being lavished on all these meetings. I truly hope breakthroughs result because the issues on the table could not be more serious—the economic crisis, development, and climate change, among others.

There is some cause for hope. A draft communiqué suggests that the one area where a group of rich countries such as the G-8 can add value—allocating funds to alleviate poverty—will be approached in a new and sensible way. Instead of offering food to developing countries, the G-8 may instead pledge billions for agricultural development. While that will anger U.S. farmers, it promises to be more effective at actually feeding hungry people over the long term.

There is also the possibility of an agreement to conclude the stalled Doha round of trade talks in 2010. Further, the Major Economies Forum is set to debate on an agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times and solidify last year’s "vision" of halving global carbon emissions by 2050.

Outcomes like these would be terrific. But at some point fairly soon, these G groupings need to be rationalized. Aside from all the leaders time, the separate meetings of the G-8 before the emerging economies (traditionally called the G-8+5, or the “Outreach 5”) create divisions among the countries that are now playing out in the worldwide media about whether or not a new global currency is part of the summit agenda. And with the invitees constantly shifting, officials spend their time deciding who is in the room instead of solving the pressing matters of the day.

Building a better G-Pick Your Number will not be easy. Hell hath known no fury like a politician uninvited to a leaders forum. To add to the challenges, Europe is overrepresented in every of these groups and yet the most enthusiastic about them. Yet all this fluidity in the Gs does means the window for forging a new forum is open, but who knows for how long.

What should the new G look like? My colleagues and I have suggested that the new leaders forum be the G-20, but a G-20 whose membership is mandated to evolve over time as the major economies of the world change and that has only 20 seats at the table, not the 27 it has already grown to include.

Grumbling about Italy has reached a point where some European diplomats have suggested replacing Italy with Spain in the G-8. It would be better if they just replaced the entire G-8 with a leaders group for the 21st century.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. To read more about the Center’s policy recommendations in this arena, please see: “A Case for Leadership: Strengthening the Group of 20 to Tackle Key Global Crises” and the International Alliances and Institutions page of our website.

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