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Summits, who needs them?

Analysis: It will be difficult to accomplish anything significant at this week's G8. So why hold summits at all?

Protesters in Italy prepare to demonstrate against the G8 summit in L'Aquila on July 8-10. Activists with the international anti-poverty agency ActionAid hold up children's swimming pools bearing cartoon images of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and G8 leaders.(Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

LONDON — Leaders of the G8 nations begin their annual three-day summit Tuesday in earthquake shattered L'Aquila Italy. Are you excited by that fact? Thought not.

Neither, would it seem, is the host of the event, the government of Italy. Disinterested chaos has characterized the preparations for the get together and the agenda is decidedly thin.

Since it was set up in 1975 as the G6, the leaders of the largest industrialized nations have used their annual summit primarily as an opportunity to make pledges, have their pictures taken and generally act as if they are on top of the problems facing the world.

Some years there are more crises to deal with than others and this would seem to be one of those years. The global economic crisis and the post-election situation in Iran being two things that the leaders might be expected to address. But so far the big item on the agenda is "food security," an initiative aimed at keeping small farmers in the developing world in business. Or something like that.

Usually, by the time the summit starts, the host country has spun the media, pushing its hopes for high achievements. The other countries involved have worked their own reporters letting them know just how important the president or prime minister has been to pushing the process along. That hasn't happened this time. My phone certainly hasn't rung, my e-mail box has been ominously unstuffed.

Partially that is because hosting the summit has revealed clearly all the shortcomings of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government. Berlusconi believes in personal rule with a capital P and he has been otherwise engaged for much of the last six months. His marriage has disintegrated in public over revelations that the 72-year-old politician attended a birthday party for an 18-year-old model. Photos of women cavorting nude at his Sardinian palazzo added fuel to his vanity's bonfire.

The only decision Berlusconi seems to have taken clearly about the summit was moving it from an island off the coast of Sardinia to L'Aquila, as an act of solidarity with the victims of the earthquake many of whom are still living in makeshift housing. But after that decision nothing has been discussed or decided.

Yesterday, the Guardian newspaper in London, reported that the United States had effectively taken over planning for the meeting. The State Department took charge of the round robin of discussions among diplomats that leads to an agreed final communique for the summit. Last night Berlusconi responded, saying the British journal had made "a colossal blunder."

This could be easily dismissed as the Italian government living down to the worst stereotype about the country but there is something deeper at work here. The question is whether these "summits" have outlived whatever usefulness they might ever have had. About the only people who seem to take them seriously are the permanent army of protesters who turn up religiously at each and every one, demanding that the leaders do something about the environment, global poverty and Palestine ... as if the leaders actually have the power to make those things happen.

When they were first organized in the mid-1970s, in response to the oil crisis of 1973, the meetings may have offered an opportunity for the leaders to plan economic policy as well as discuss their mutual security concern: the Soviet Union. But now it is hard to see what they do except blow tens of millions of dollars (or euros or yen or pounds) on a gigantic photo-op.