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G8 needs a seismic shake-up

Like previous summits, the G8 summit in Italy this week was tinged by the host’s culture and personal taste.

George W Bush invited the world’s leaders to an island off Georgia in 2004; Britain’s Tony Blair hosted the summit in a Scottish luxury hotel in 2005; and Germany’s Angela Merkel played host in an austere coastal village next to the Baltic Sea in 2007.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s idiosyncratic leader, decided to shift the summit from a resort in Sardinia to l’Aquila, a town devastated by an earthquake earlier this year. This makes sense because the G8 itself is a disaster.

The G8 is increasingly unrepresentative of the world and it lacks both legitimacy and power. As meaningful inclusiveness, the essence of a global summit, is no longer given, the G8 cannot tackle the world’s most urgent problems, such as climate change and nuclear proliferation. By seating giants such as Brazil, China and India at the side table, the G8 is accelerating its own demise. It is time for the G8’s leaders to reinvent the summit.

The only solution out of this mess is to cast petty politics aside and to democratise the G8 and expand it into the G14 by inviting China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Mexico (the so-called G5) and Turkey as full members. This move would give the new G14 unprecedented legitimacy and the ability to address global problems.

But why not simply replace the G8 with an increasingly prominent G20? The idea may sound appealing, but keeping the summit small and establishing an intimate setting is crucial to preserve its usefulness. After all, when Germany’s chancellor Helmut Schmidt and France’s president Giscard d’Estaing conceived the summit in 1975, they envisioned a small, frank and informal discussion around the fireplace. This can hardly be done with 20 participants and 14 should be the upper limit. This step would be a clear sign of the West’s commitment to keeping the summit practical and a powerful acknowledgement that global distribution of power is not set in stone.

Critics will point to the fact that Turkey’s economy is still relatively small. But economic size is not all that matters. What are the criteria for membership? G8 membership used to be based on economic power, but it has long abandoned this rule by not taking in China, the second-largest economy in the world. Democracy used to matter, too. That criterion was thrown overboard when inviting autocratic Russia and ignoring democratic India.

The truth is that membership is entirely arbitrary and based on short-term interests and politicking. Russia, for example, was invited as European powers vastly overestimated their power to coax Russia into democratising — it did just the opposite after entering the G8. The summit today is a farce, where declining and self-important Western nations celebrate themselves and believe the West can still fix the world.

To remain effective, the G8 must regain three main attributes: the ability to address global problems, legitimacy and practicality. By including the increasingly powerful G5, the G8 would regain its ability to address global problems such as climate change and non proliferation. For example, any agreement to reduce emissions that does not include China, India and Brazil cannot bring lasting change.

But the new G14 must also be representative of as many regions as possible to assume global leadership. Turkey, 70-million strong, cannot represent the Muslim world, a largely fictitious term anyway. Yet Turkey can act as a crucial bridge between East and West, thus boosting the club’s legitimacy — already enhanced by the entry of Brazil and South Africa as representatives of South American and sub-Saharan Africa, respectively. Finally, the G8 must remain manageable and resist the temptation to please everybody by accepting too many countries.

In its quest to tackle the world’s problems the United Nations Security Council has failed, as it still represents the world of 1945. The G8 reflects the world in the 1980s, but it must use its flexibility to become a forward-looking institution that represents the world in 2020.

The shattered city of l’Aquila is a potent reminder for the G8’s leaders that their summit, too, badly needs some fixing.

Yet more than just the G8 is at stake. We need visionary solutions to our global problems and a potent G14 to find them.

Oliver Stuenkel is a research fellow at the Centre for Public Leadership in São Paulo

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