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Is it really worth bugging? A guide to the G8

On the hunt for rogue internet cafes. Niall Carson/PA

So what’s so special about this lot? Who decides which countries get to be in the gang? Can you get kicked out? How does it stack up against the G20? If spies were to listen in, would they hear anything interesting? Sometimes it seems there are more questions than answers when it comes to the G8.

To some it looks like a throwback to another era – a Western-dominated economic club keen to ensure that “they’re all right Jack”. But in a world of BRICS, shifting political alliances and global financial uncertainty, hasn’t it had its day?

Well, it isn’t entirely stuck in the past, but a little bit of history might provide a guide to the present - and the future.

Now there are eight – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United States, United Kingdom. But back in 1973, there were just four.

US Treasury Secretary George Schultz scheduled a meeting with his German, French and British counterparts to discuss financial turmoil and rising oil prices. President Richard Nixon was out of town at the time and invited Schultz to use the White House for the meeting. The four ministers met in the White House library, and the Library Group was born.

The following year, ahead of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) meeting, the Japanese finance minister invited his Library Group counterparts to meet with him in the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Nairobi.

When one of these ministers, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing, became French President, he decided there would be merit in replicating the intimate, and candid Library Group exchanges at leaders’ level. Italy was added to the existing membership of the Library Group to create a G6, and the first leaders’ summit was held in 1975 in a French chateau.

The following year the United States agreed to host a leaders’ summit and added ally and neighbour Canada, creating a G7.

G7 leaders’ summits continued for the next 20 years, until a decision to increase dialogue with the Russian president in the post-cold war era. Russia formally joined the newly renamed G8 at the 1998 meeting in Birmingham, after two years of informal attendance.

The current G8 membership has remained unaltered for the last 15 years, although there has been sporadic outreach to 5 other prominent rising powers, including Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.

There is no formal membership criteria for the G8 and, as detailed above, its evolution is somewhat haphazard. G7 powers were generally the largest open market economies that were also liberal democracies. In that sense they shared some broad cultural, social and political values. Russia’s inclusion is less clear cut in relation to these broad common bonds, but to some extent the G8 are natural partners and form a common club of old world powers.

The big problem the G8 faces is that its share of global GDP has been shrinking for a decade or more. China is projected to overtake the United States as the largest economy in the world in coming years. Brazil and India are growing fast, and are large markets in their own right.

Until recently, the G8 acted as the principal policy forum for global governance: setting and initiating agendas; endorsing certain approaches, and vetoing others; and generally directing the wider framework of international institutions, setting priorities and deadlines for their work.

But by the late 2000s, the group felt dated. The G8 could not speak for some of the world’s major emerging economic powers and it could no longer adequately discuss many global economic issues and problems without the presence of China, India and Brazil. This undermined the group’s primacy, and a more representative body was required.

The G20 was created after the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and included all of the rising powers mentioned above. Following the financial crash of 2008, G20 finance ministers and central bank governors were joined by a leaders’ summit.

At the Pittsburgh summit of 2009, the US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced that the G20 would become the preeminent forum for global economic governance. For the G8, this represented an effective demotion; for the G20, a promotion reflecting a changed world.

These developments raise the question of whether the G8 has a future role. To understand the answer to this it is necessary to understand the fundamental paradox that has characterised the G8 since its creation.

The principal strength of the G8 is that its relatively small numbers encourage intimacy, informality, frank exchanges, and some back and forth between leaders. Genuine agreements can be reached in this context. This contrasts with the G20 when there are often over 20 leaders round the table and formal discussions can be much more scripted and stilted.

But the very reason participants continue to attach some value to G8 also represents the group’s fundamental weakness. The small, exclusive, club-like nature of the G8 has undermined its reach, legitimacy and authority.

The history of the G8 has in a very real sense been an attempt to manage and resolve this paradox. To some extent the creation and elevation of the G20 has provided an uneasy resolution. Greater reach, legitimacy and authority, are great, but agreements - or even productive discussions - are harder.

But the opportunity for leaders to meet other leaders, in groups and in one-to-ones, is still extremely appealing to them. And yes, the chance to capture such candid conversations will continue being very useful for intelligence gatherers.

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