One of the surest signs of a large company’s imminent bankruptcy is an accelerating tendency to spend vast sums of money celebrating its own existence, with lush birthday dinners for the chairman, anniversary parties, and so forth. But there are very few large companies whose self-centered profligacy can match the extravagance of the G7 summit. Its Japanese hosts last week celebrated the existence of this increasingly peculiar club by spending nearly $750 million on staging a meeting between eight middle-aged men, the most important of whom showed up for only a few hours, the rest of whom signed a few banal communiqués and went home. One Washington Post report noted, without apparent irony, that “Clinton and other leaders declared the summit a success, based largely on the lack of controversy and the sheaf of joint communiques worked out in advance by their staffs.”
For once, the only sensible words were spoken by those savers of rain forests and scourges of global capitalism (click here to read their analysis) who made it to Okinawa: They called it “obscene.” They also noted that this is the sort of money that could bail whole African countries out of debt or provide education for one in 10 of the world’s illiterate children. And they were right: It is time to call an end to the G7 farce immediately.
Unfortunately, the world of international institutions is not as cheerfully Darwinian as the world of large companies. Once invented, they acquire their own momentum, staggering on in a kind of twilit afterlife, years and years after their usefulness has ended. The U.N. system is stuffed with such zombies. Remember the International Atomic Energy Agency? It’s still there, even though nobody talks about atomic energy any more. There are still U.N. agencies and committees on decolonization, on Palestine (click here to read about them), and on various aspects of development, even though real decisions on all these issues are made elsewhere.
Weirdly, the G7 was originally set up to countermand all that: It was supposed to be informal, supposed to be off the record, supposed to offer a chance for the leaders of some of the larger nations of the West just to chat about things, one on one, without all the trappings of a U.N. General Assembly meeting or a state visit. Perhaps this made sense back when a trans-Atlantic telephone call was still a big deal. Nowadays, however, every one of the world’s leaders is in constant communication with the others all of the time, and if he isn’t, then his advisers are. Why do they need to spend $750 million in order to drink green tea?
The truth is that the G7 has now taken on other roles, not all of which are fully stated. One of the reasons that the Japanese got so worked up about Okinawa, sending a small squadron of 22,000 police to keep the place safe and providing lobster and caviar to keep the leaders fed, was that they—according to one European diplomat who deals with the Far East—have increasingly come to see it as a substitute for the U.N. Security Council that they have abandoned hope of entering. Everyone knows the Security Council no longer reflects the balance of power in the world; everyone also knows that it is impossible to alter, without all hell breaking loose. The British and French will never give up their seats, no one would be able to decide whether Brazil or Argentina should represent Latin America, etc., etc. So, the Japanese, being realists, pour all their diplomatic energies into the summit, hoping that by raising its profile and importance, they will finally have some influence.
The G7 has also come to be seen not as a place to get actual things done, but as a place where world leaders can bask in the glow of one another’s prestige, putting their international standing to domestic use. John Major, in his final years as Britain’s most unpopular prime minister ever, made a great fuss about G7 summits. Standing side by side with other supposedly important people, he presumably felt that he didn’t seem like such a weakling. Boris Yeltsin was originally invited for precisely the same sorts of reasons: The West in general, and Clinton in particular, wanted to make him look like more of a statesman at home, thereby helping him to get re-elected, thereby preventing bad guys (such as former KGB agents) from taking power in Russia.
Now, however, we have to deal with that backfired policy as well: The former KGB agent is in charge of Russia, and nobody seems to have the nerve to disinvite him. Indeed, Vladimir Putin went around Okinawa telling everybody that these summits will from now on, forever and ever, be referred to as the “G8,” even proposing that one be held in Moscow in three years time. Most newspapers have now taken to calling the meetings the G8, as have the participants. Yet although he has successfully wormed his way in, it isn’t clear by what criteria he should be allowed to stay. If economic influence matters, why Russia? Why not Holland? If owning nukes and being generally scary are the most important qualifications, then where is China? One country that not only has economic influence and nukes but also an enormous population as well is India. Why not include them too? At least India is a democracy. But then, democracy and respect for human rights clearly aren’t a requirement for participation, since Russian democracy is shaky at best and Russia’s human rights record in Chechnya is appalling.
Curiously, Jacques Chirac had proposed discussing Chechnya at this very summit. Alas, with Putin around, no one had the nerve to bring it up. Nor did anyone dare (as had been planned) to stick a bit of tough language into the final communiqué, urging Russia to pay its debts. On the contrary, Russia seems intent on using some of the admittedly vague language about debt relief—intended for extremely poor, AIDS-ridden African countries—to its own advantage and has been quietly lobbying to have the $40 billion plus debts that it took over from the Soviet Union to be quietly dropped. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had no qualms about taking over its U.N. Security Council seat, its nukes, or its embassies: The debt was, and must remain, a part of the package.
Besides, it isn’t clear why a resource-rich nation, its hinterland filled with diamonds and oil, should require debt relief anyway. Unless the G7—sorry, G8—is now to begin playing a new role as well: that of world forum for the formerly powerful. If that is the case, the possibilities for new invitations are unlimited. Next year we could invite the Egyptians, in recognition of their forebears who built the pyramids. The following year, the descendants of the Aztecs. And why not a summit meeting in Iraq? After all, Mesopotamia once mattered too.