July 7, 2008

HARRISONBURG— Today, in a commentary for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, takes a look at the “Group of Eight” (G8) summit of industrialized nations, which opened today in Toyako on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.

Noting that the Republican presidential candidate John McCain suggested earlier this year that the G8 should become “again a club of leading market democracies” by expanding to include Brazil and India, but excluding Russia, the article argues that “while the senator’s specific membership-roster proposals can be debated, the dynamics of the G8 summit, which opened on Monday in Toyako, Japan, underscores his larger point: the first step toward building effective international institutions is to ensure that members have common interests, if not shared histories and values.”

Instead, Dr. Pham observes, “like classic Japanese theater, this year’s confab is of an intricate web of overlapping circles: the G8 proper (with French President Nicolas Sarkozy dual-hatted as both French chief of state and coleader of the EU delegation, along with commission president José Manuel Barroso ); members of Outreach Group 1 (the leaders of Algeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Jean Ping); members of Outreach Group 2 (the leaders of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa); and non-G8 countries belonging to the “Major Economies Group” (Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea and South Africa)”—and “the criteria for participation, other than prior attendance, are not especially transparent” with major economies like the Republic of China (Taiwan) and regional military powers like Israel and Turkey excluded, while lesser economies and questionable democracies are included.

Moreover, Dr. Pham notes:

If how one gets access to the G8 proceedings is not readily apparent, what the meetings actually accomplish is even more nebulous. The Gleneagles summit in 2005 promised $50 billion in increased overseas development assistance by 2010, half of it for Africa. As of this past weekend, working drafts of the final communiqué for the Toyako summit restate the commitment, but omit any reference to dates and figures—a bit of backtracking which will likely fuel considerable resentment in Africa. Indignation will be expressed over Zimbabwe’s hijacked elections, but little else will be done—lest [Robert Mugabe’s] chief apologist abroad, South African President Thabo Mbeki, be embarrassed. The United States will seek acknowledgement of North Korea’s recent nuclear declaration, but the Japanese will protest, arguing that removing Pyongyang from the state sponsors of terror list overlooks the unresolved kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Korea. Ironically, a non-G8 power, China, is well positioned on the sidelines to benefit from the G8’s diplomatic fumbles .

Intensely personalized and billed as the meeting of the world’s most popular leaders, the G8’s ability to deliver is highly contingent on the political capital of the summiteers. But this year’s crop of dignataries more closely resembles a major league baseball team’s sixty-day disabled list than its starting lineup. Britain’s Gordon Brown, France’s Sarkozy, and Japan’s Yasuo Fukada all suffer from abysmal approval ratings at home. George W. Bush must cope with both low popularity and the fact that everyone is focused on who will be elected to succeed him in less than four months. Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev has yet to prove himself to be more than the puppet of his predecessor turned prime minister, Vladimir Putin. After disappointing state election returns this spring, Germany’s Merkel faces national polls within a year. Only Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi can credibly claim a strong popular mandate, assuming he can get his country’s judges off his trail by passing a bill granting immunity from prosecution to the top four officials in the Italian government.

Consequently, the essay concludes:

Most observers expect that, irrespective of which new administration takes office next January, Washington will pursue a more multilateral foreign-policy approach in the post-Bush era. However, unless reforms are undertaken to make the G8 and other institutionalized gatherings more reflective of real power and interests—and then to give them more attainable objectives to pursue—the periodic encounters will continue to be, like this week’s summit, a kabuki production, presenting complex stagecraft and great theater, but achieving little practical effect.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s commentary, “Kabuki Diplomacy,” can be accessed by clicking here.