Here are five bad things about the G-8 to grumble about as you look at the pictures coming out of Camp David this weekend:
1. It celebrates the individual European nation states that supposedly combined economic policies in the European Union, but never actually did — resulting in the disastrous consequences we see today. Half of the G-8 members are also members of the E.U. — France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. When the Group was created in 1976 as the G-6, these four European nations made up two-thirds of the elite club — reinforcing the already dubious idea that European nations were vital to the global future. Now, Europe is falling apart — and still they come together for a power huddle.
2. As a symbol of white Western power (Canada was added in 1976 and Russia in 1997), the G-8 looks to the rest of the world like a vestige of neo-colonialism. Which, to be honest, it probably is. President Obama — whose destiny (as the son of a African subject of British imperial rule) is arguably to be the first truly post-colonial leader — announced in 2009 that the G-8 would be replaced as a global power elite by the not-so-white G-20. But the old organization still rumbles along, forgotten but not gone.
3. By giving Russia a seat at the table, the G-8 perpetuates the notion that Russia is a major global power. The Russians cling to that status only by using their negative clout — as in their ability to veto U.N. resolutions that might stop the slaughter of Syrians. This week, in a truly bizarre exercise of negative charisma, President Vladimir Putin decided to show how important he is by vetoing the G-8 summit. Gosh, what a loss for G-8 watchers. Maybe he could have been photographed at Camp David with his shirt off.
4. The G-8 embodies the decidedly untrue notion that by coming together as a group, global leaders will act jointly and transcend the political limitations of their respective nation states. In recent years, the opposite seems to have been the case. Consider Europe’s experiment in supra-national identity: In theory, four of the eight summiteers could be represented by the president of the E.U. Council. A fiver for anyone who can tell me that person’s name without cheating. (It’s Herman van Rompuy. He’s a Belgian politician of Flemish ancestry who was briefly, for 11 months, prime minister of his own country.)
5. The summit symbolizes the distance between leaders and the people they represent, which is emerging as the biggest problem of the new millennium. This governance gap is evident in nearly every European country, where leadership deals about the euro collapse as citizens riot in the streets; it’s true in China, where party leaders are holding on for a leadership transition that’s turning out to be a roller-coaster ride; it’s true in Russia, where a reelected Putin must cope with angry citizens who are aren’t afraid of him anymore; and it’s true in the United States, where national politics are experiencing a paralysis and breakdown.
So enjoy the photos from Camp David, and the empty news conferences that follow these exercises. Many outdated organizations survive on their own momentum and bonhomie — think of the Lions Clubs, the Shriners, the Elks, the Moose and all other fraternal organizations whose purpose is a bit vague but whose members still enjoy getting together for a regular chin wag. And the G-8, too.