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Analysis: It will be difficult to accomplish anything significant at this week's G8. So why hold summits at all?
Here's an example: In 2005, Britain used its presidency of the group to focus on global poverty at the Gleneagles Summit. It was a big theme dear to the heart of both then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The Live Aid concert, broadcast globally by the BBC, was all part of a big push to get the richest nations to commit hard cash to the poorest. Do you remember the glow of that day? The amounts pledged at the Gleneagles summit were historic, we were told by Live Aid organizer Bob Geldof.
Four years later, Brown, now prime minister, wants the summit to at least publish results of which countries have lived up to their pledges. That is unlikely to happen, not least because Italy has slashed its aid budget under Berlusconi. But while Italy is the worst offender, other G8 countries after the big headlines and photos returned to business as usual. The British taxpayers, who footed a bill in the tens of millions for staging the summit might be forgiven for asking what was the point of all the hoopla and expense?
There is another reason to wonder about the usefulness of the G8. That is the G20. This larger group which includes Brazil and China reflects more accurately the distribution of industrial wealth in the contemporary world. It has taken the lead in trying to develop a coordinated governmental response to the global financial meltdown. But its meetings, too, are proving to be a shallow mix of posturing for domestic political consumption.
In April, the G20 met in London and agreed to tough measures to regulate the banking system, cap executive compensation and bring hedge funds to heel. Big cheers from people whose life savings and pensions have gone up in smoke. However, calls to Downing Street, the British Treasury, the White House and the U.S. Treasury indicate that virtually nothing has been done to meet those urgent commitments. President Barack Obama's June 17 announcement of a financial reform package fell well short of those goals and was derided by the right and left. Gordon Brown, fighting for his political life, has done nothing at all on the compensation question except to say that by 2011 the top rate of tax for people earning over £250,000 — about $403,000 — will go up to 50 percent. Of course, by 2011, he will no longer be prime minister.
Many of those who attended the G20 are in the same boat: unpopular and facing elections likely to drive them out of office long before they can turn pledges into legislated reality.
The question that hovers over all these "summits" whether G8, G20 or G-everybody is can these ad hoc groups, led by politicians, who make promises they will not be in office to fulfill, possibly serve any use at all?
We live in a world where it seems all the major decisions on how human beings live are made not by our elected leaders but by a narrow group of elites working for private multi-national companies; or speculators — hedge funds and others — playing the markets for their own and their wealthy shareholders massive enrichment; or one or two autocratic regimes like China and Russia. Most leaders of democratic countries are operating from a position of weakness. That, of course, is not the case for Obama. It is hard to imagine him, after the L'Aquila summit is over, not wanting to streamline the whole summit program. His time is precious, his domestic legislative program more important.
Perhaps it is time to add one more demand to the protesters' list: stop G8 summits.
Stop them now.
Although, given the success the protesters have had getting serious action on their other demands, it may not be such a good idea to go the protest route to end these anachronisms.
More GlobalPost dispatches by Michael Goldfarb: