In the Loop: The G-6 Plus 1 Plus 1 Plus 12

By Al Kamen
Monday, October 5, 2009

Do your eyes glaze over when foreign policy wonks start talking about the "six-party" talks, the G-7 plus one, the 26 plus nine? (Okay, we made the last one up.)

Sometimes the numbers make obvious sense. For example, the "two plus four" talks on German reunification two decades ago were straightforward enough. That stood for East and West Germany plus the four post-World War II occupying powers -- the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

Other numerals are trickier. Take the Group of Six. That was set up in 1975 as a club for the six richest countries in the world: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the United States. Canada joined a year later, so it became the G-7. It stayed that way for the next two decades until the Russians, long a lowly "plus one," were finally allowed in, so the G-7 begat the G-8.

Then things got a bit goofy as a group of G-8 wannabes -- Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa -- came on the scene. They were called the Outreach Five or the Plus Five (not to be confused with the Jackson 5). So people started using "G-8 plus five." And then, when the more inclusive Group of 20 met last month in Pittsburgh, it decided to pick up the G-8's portfolio.

There was chatter last week about the need to add countries to the G-20. The commemorative group photo of the Pittsburgh gathering shows 32 attendees, because it includes folks from the World Bank, the United Nations and other organizations.

And these designations, in keeping with good enviro practice, can be recycled. Thus the G-6 apparently is now used to talk about the six most populous countries in Europe. The G-8 lives on, but apparently more as a floating cocktail soiree, though it could be seen as a steering committee.

As annoying and odd as all this number shorthand can be, the diplos take this stuff very, very seriously. Being relegated to "plus" status is the equivalent of sitting in the cheap seats at the Oscars. You don't quite rate. You're definitely lower-level, second-class, looked down upon.

Our current favorite in this regard is the P5 +1 ("P" standing for "party"). This is actually an American term for the six countries trying to get the Iranians to stop their nuclear weapons program.

Originally, when Washington wasn't on speaking terms with Iran, there was the EU3 negotiating team -- the British, French and Germans, dealing most unsuccessfully with the Iranians.

Then the United States, Russia and China joined in. So, using the traditional criteria, it made sense that the group would then become the EU3+3.

But not so fast. The United States, the leader of the free world, can never be a "plus" country. It has to be in the lead group. So Washington apparently started calling it the P5+1, for the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.

The Germans were not amused. In fact, out of deference to them, everyone in Europe still calls it the EU3 + 3. But the Russians and Chinese sometimes slip and say P5 + 1.

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