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Wait, the G-8 still exists?

In Deauville, France this week, the Group of 8 (G-8) will meet at the level of heads of state. The multilateral festivities kick off with a working lunch on Thursday and wrap up late on Friday. The prominence of this year's summit represents something of a resurrection for the G-8.  After the 2009 Pittsburgh summit of the G-20 declared that body to be the "premier forum for global economic cooperation," it wasn't clear that the G-8 would continue to exist. The group's persistence may say more about the inadequacies of other diplomatic fora than anything else.

The insight of the "G" phenomenon is that the world needs an informal venue--outside of established international organizations--for the most powerful players to meet. Such a space allows heads of state and key ministers to get to know each other, build some level of personal rapport, and discuss complex issues, ideally without a formal agenda. But creating the right environment and finding the appropriate membership is tricky.

The G-20, it is already clear, is too large and includes too many peripheral players to serve as a reliable global steering committee. Useful during the financial crisis, it has proved significantly less effective since. What's more, several key players, including the United States are adamantly opposed to the G-20 taking on political or diplomatic issues. Washington carefully polices the G-20 agenda to ensure that it remains focused on economics and finance.  For its part, the old G-7 structure is too dominated by the West to have much relevance or credibility, and now only meets at the level of finance ministers.

The current G-8 isn't quite right either. It is not really a gathering of the key economic players, since it doesn't include China, India or Brazil.  And with Russia as part of the roster, it is also not a club of the most powerful liberal democracies. Indeed, Russia's presence leads to some difficult internal discussions about the agenda and outcomes of G-8 meetings.  But in the absence of a more appropriate small group forum, the G-8 machine continues to tick.   

In truth, the G-8 has always been an odd diplomatic duck. It is made up of the longer-standing G-7 (itself comprised of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan) plus Russia. Moscow's addition in 1997 was seen as a recognition of its political status and a political fillup to the embattled Boris Yeltsin. But the presence of Russia changed the dynamic of the group considerably. No longer just a club of the leading wealthy donor nations, the G-8 had to find other issues to discuss (particularly because the G-7 continued to meet alongside the new group). The G-8 therefore often tackled peace and security issues, including non-proliferation, and development. At various summits, its leaders have made extravagent (and often unfulfilled) pledges of development assistance.  At moments, as during the 1999 Kosovo conflict, it served as a useful forum to broker deals.  

If it were up to Washington, the phenomenon of G-8 summitry might well have died this year. The United States is generally less fond of summits than European leaders in any case, and the Americans argued that the G-8 wasn't really adding anything of value. But the dogged advocacy of the French kept the forum alive. In part, this was about domestic politics. The embattled French president Nicolas Sarkozy wants to milk his current role as chair of the G-8 and G-20 for all it's worth. Given the perceived need to show international leadership,  why host one prominent summit (the G-20 meets at Cannes in November) when you can host two?  The French pushed hard to keep the G-8 as a stand-alone summit, and they eventually won over the Americans.  

Washington may now be pleased that the French pushed so hard. The summit creates a timely opportunity for the group's members to offer political and economic support to those Arab countries that are in the midst of transitions to democracy. The new leaders of Egypt and Tunisia, as well as the freshly minted head of the Arab League, will participate in conversations at Deauville. A key outcome will be a "Deauville Partnership," which will offer economic and political support to those countries able to pull off successful democratic transitions. The economic aid on offer probably won't be huge; austerity means that the era of gargantuan G-8 pledges is over. But with the UN Security Council now quite divided over how to respond to crackdowns underway in several Arab countries, the summit may give a potentially important international boost to the reform movements.   

While the Arab spring will be the lead at the summit, the G-8 leaders will have a number of other items on their plates, including discussing internet governance and cybersecurity, producing a statement of solidarity with Japan, deepening linkages with Africa, and setting in motion new discussions on nuclear safety.

The succession process at the International Monetary Fund may also feature prominently (although it's not on the formal agenda). But here the presence of Russia could make talks awkward. The G-7  traditionally served as the IMF's de facto steering committee and it will be tempting to use the Deauville summit as an opportunity to hash out a unified G-7 position on who should take over from Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But the Western heads of state will want to avoid the impression that they're cutting backroom deals, particularly with a BRICS member so close at hand. The G-8 members also won't want to step on the toes of the G-20, and IMF reform now falls much more squarely within its competence. Given this dynamic, it's unlikely there will be a dramatic announcement regarding the IMF. But plenty will happen behind the scenes. As always, the quiet conversations that occur at these summits will be as important as the grand proclamations.

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