Bloc-Buster Idea: Make It The G-3

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 6, 2008

LONDON -- John McCain would kick Russia out of the Group of Eight economic powers that meet in Japan this week. But this is no time to think small. The G-8 leaders themselves should declare surrender and disband their high-profile huddle on the state of the world.

Think of it as global shock therapy: Using the July 7-9 summit on Hokkaido Island to abandon the bloated, unwieldy G-8 format would be a first step toward acknowledging and rethinking -- at the highest level -- these important international realities:

· The world that these leaders and their predecessors have promised for the past three decades is not today's world of energy and food-price shocks, global financial irresponsibility, menacing climate change, and terrorist networks seeking weapons of mass destruction. The G-8 leaders -- most of them disdained by their publics in these hard times -- have failed, and they should accept responsibility.

· The illusion of control that they seek to impose through this summit has become self-defeating. Increasingly it appears to people in nation after nation that no one is in control of events and institutions at the global level. Asserting otherwise without providing tangible relief simply increases popular cynicism and anger.

"This is a crisis in legitimacy and world leadership," a senior French official told me a few weeks ago in Paris. When I countered that the world had similarly undergone a lengthy period of anxiety and uncertainly in the 1970s and recovered, he responded:

"The problems then were the problems of the rich, who worried about their oil supplies and financial imbalances. Because of globalization, today everything is connected and hits everyone at the same moment. Price surges in oil and food, which are connected, exacerbate the subprime financial mess. Iran uses its oil revenue to pursue a nuclear weapon and to direct revolutionary warfare in Lebanon and Gaza. Governments are overwhelmed."

Even so, my Swiftian proposal to blow up the G-8 and start over will find no favor with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the summit host. Hoping to buy time to improve his political fortunes at home, he wants to persuade Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and the United States to accept a new climate-change agreement with a Japanese imprimatur.

The prime minister also told me in Tokyo in May that he wants the summit to act to stem "the precipitous rise in commodity prices . . . which today do not reflect the real world economy" because they involve far too much "financial speculation." But he offered no specific remedies.

From Fukuda's standpoint, the summit's most important moment could be its closing "outreach" session when the eight meet with China and other invited developing countries to discuss economic growth and global warming. Fukuda will spotlight this gathering as a step in what he calls "the internationalization of China" and Japan's guiding role in that process. Getting China and India to sign up to cut carbon emissions might also spur Japanese exports of energy-efficient technology.

The self-interest of host nations and their penchant to outshine each other is enough to keep this bunch in business. I can claim no headway with Italy, the next G-8 host nation, either. Foreign Minister Franco Frattini proudly told me in Venice last month that Italy has already added Egypt to the list of core "outreach" countries for next year's gathering.

The G-8 long ago proved that bigger is not always better. The intimate gathering of just six leaders that French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing convoked in 1975 has been transmogrified into a giant public relations exercise with little real point. And the admission of Russia in 1998 -- despite its lack of qualifications as an established democratic industrial power -- further diluted the process.

Predictable suggestions that this body be expanded to a G-13 or a G-20 go in the absolute wrong direction. More expansion will destroy any opportunity for informal, effective consultation by world leaders. They will be talking for the press releases, not for each other. Such proposals should be put forward only as cover for a more sensible proposition: The United States, the European Union and Japan should quietly form a G-3 that would operate in the shadows of the much larger talk shop. A G-3 would get back to Giscard's original idea.

It would get McCain off the hook of his unworkable idea to exclude just Russia. And it would get us back to the wisdom of less being more, an idea that sadly went out of vogue in the we-can-have-it-all euphoria of globalization.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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