This past weekend, Canada played host to a pair of international summits: G8 leaders met in Huntsville on Friday and part of Saturday, then congregated in Toronto for a G20 summit that wrapped up Sunday.
Toronto bore the brunt of the protests that go hand-in-hand with summits like these. Several police cruisers were torched, stores were left with windows smashed and graffiti covering whatever remained and phalanxes of riot cops lobbed tear gas on crowds of demonstrators—just throw in some pissed off robots and you'd have the next Michael Bay movie.
Was all the mayhem worth it? I don't know. But I do know that we did get one useful piece of information out of last weekend's summits: that the G8 is finished as an independent international organization.
The G8's closing communique, much of which was written nearly a month before the summit even took place, is little more than a ritual recitation of the same old platitudes: North Korea bad, Iran bad, climate change bad (but not enough to do anything about it, of course). The ambitious foreign aid pledges G8 leaders made in 2005 at Gleneagles were airbrushed out of existence, replaced by a relatively modest $5 billion maternal health initiative.
The G20 itself may not have accomplished much either. There was no agreement on a global bank tax, and it's unlikely that many G20 leaders will follow through on their pledge to halve their deficits by 2013—but at least it hosted a real debate on important issues, like the extent to which governments should push forward or hold back on stimulus spending. That draft communiques didn't start leaking until after the summit started further indicates that this summit wasn't just a photo-up.
The contrast between these two summits is striking, and it's yet more proof that the world's center of gravity is shifting away from the G8 and toward the G20. It's doing so for one simple reason: in the 21st century, you cannot solve any substantive global problem without reaching beyond North America, Europe and Japan. You can't lobby China to revalue its currency if China isn't in the room. You can't move forward on climate change unless India, China and the United States can find common ground. Even statements on issues like Iran's nuclear program fall flat unless you can persuade emerging powers like Brazil and Turkey to sign on.
Some have said that, even if the G8's communiques are meaningless, the G8 itself remains valuable because it offers an opportunity for democratic (or relatively democratic) leaders to meet in person and talk informally about emerging issues.
The trouble with this excuse is that the G8 is hardly the only opportunity to do this. We already have annual UN world leaders' summits in New York, along with regular meetings of NATO and other major international bodies, not to mention countless bilateral visits between various leaders. Oh yeah—there's also the G20.
Bereft on any genuine purpose, it's doubtful the G8 will survive much longer. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, set to chair next year's summit, has already said he will follow Canada's example in hosting G8 and G20 meetings on the same weekend. This practice will likely become an annual tradition, permanently relegating the G8 to the role of warm-up act for the G20.
Once the global recession subsides, the G20 will likely try to take over responsibility for some of the political issues currently reserved for the G8—African countries will push for new global aid commitments, Brazil and Turkey will try to promote their outlook on Iran and perhaps Gaza, and European countries could try to revitalize global climate change talks.
Once this happens, the G8 will either become a subsidiary of the G20, existing solely so that a vaguely Western group of leaders can try and agree on what positions they're going to lobby for within the G20, or perhaps cease to exist at all.
If this year's G8 communique indicates anything, it likely wouldn't matter much either way.