The coming week's multilateral extravaganza kicks off with the G8 meeting at Camp David followed quickly by the NATO Summit in Chicago. Neither session is likely to produce much concrete, but both forums are worth celebrating. NATO is the much more venerable entity, but the G7/G8 has now been meeting for almost forty years and has proved useful as a coordinating committee of the world's most advanced economies. The summits will be presented as exercises in global diplomacy, but it's worth recalling that neither NATO nor the G8 are global, and neither are really representative of the world's array of political regimes. Both groups are stuffed with liberal democracies (Russia is the only member of either club that doesn't fit the bill).
NATO made liberal democratic principles part of its founding treaty. The preamble of that document declares its members' intention to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law." The alliance members made a notable concession to political reality right away by including Portugal (and they would make additional concessions later on), but NATO has retained its character as an alliance of liberal democracies.
Dean Acheson, U.S. secretary of state at the time of the alliance's founding, thought the enterprise had much better odds of success than the United Nations (about which Acheson was deeply skeptical) precisely because its members shared a common culture. "It is important to keep in mind," he said in a March 1949 broadcast, "that the really successful national and international institutions are those that recognize and express underlying realities. The North Atlantic community of nations is such a reality. It is based on the affinity and natural identity of interests of the North Atlantic powers."
To an extent, the G7/G8 has also represented an important underlying reality: that the world's most advanced economies have common interests and a shared vision of the world economy and financial system. Somewhat against the odds, the forum has persisted even after the G20 was declared the world's "premier forum" for international economic cooperation. Some observers attribute the group's sticking power to its greater coziness; once invited guests are included, G20 events have become quite large. But Stewart Patrick argues insightfully here that the G8's persistence is not just a matter of size; the political similarities of the G8 countries (Russia again partially excluded) have kept the forum relevant in the face of a challenge from the more representative G20:
[L]eaders from the developed world have clearly decided that it's useful to continue meeting as a smaller group, hammer out some consensus on the major problems that they all confront, and coordinate a response to major global shifts--without having to talk about every (often valid) gripe of all twenty countries in the G20. The seven leaders (not including the Russian substitute) have a diverse set of tasks from their electorates, but are far more aligned than the G20--in terms of both motivations and domestic constraints.
To the extent these forums remain useful and effective, they may be a vindication not of multilateralism per se but of cooperation and coordination between essentially like-minded governments.