Another year, another G8 summit. But do they achieve anything?

The world's most powerful men are meeting in the Rockies. The history of these gatherings shows they promise much but deliver little
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Indy Politics

It is that time of year again. High summer, massive security and the annual gathering or the world's most powerful men, the nearest thing there is to a steering group of Planet Earth. The achievements are often minimal but the trappings are usually magnificent.

This year it is Canada's turn to put on the show. The Presidents or Prime Ministers of the US, Russia, Germany, Japan, France, Britain and Italy and the host country are in a stunning resort in the Canadian Rockies called Kananaskis, near Calgary, Alberta.

In a sense it is a return to first principles, back to the inaugural summit of November 1975 when President Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France invited the leaders of Britain, the US, Japan and Germany to an informal "fireside meeting" at the old royal hunting chateau in the forest of Rambouillet, far from any pestering journalists back in Paris.

For Rambouillet read the Delta Lodge, a luxurious resort in the pine forests of the Rockies, with the media pack (vastly inflated in the space of the intervening decades) confined to Calgary 60 miles to the east. As with Rambouillet, there will be no communiqué. But there the similarities end.

The most glaring contrast with 27 years ago lies in the security. This is the first G8 summit since 11 September, and does it show. A nation's character also shows in the way it handles security. The British are understated but ruthless, the Americans no-nonsense; the French ruthlessly authoritarian, the Russians, if needs be, plain brutal.

Canadians, as always, smother with politeness. Everything is done with a smile and a soft voice, and an implicit appeal to common sense. But there is so much of it. No matter that the leaders being covered are 60 miles away; never in history has there been a better protected (and more thoroughly vetted) bunch of journalists.

At the time of writing, there hasn't been a squeak from the terrorists, though 30 Canadian police deployed around Kanan-askis did contract a mysterious bout of food poisoning on Sunday, from which they happily have recovered.

The now traditional anti-globalisation demonstrations too have thus far been pretty tame, more potent in Ottawa 1,700 miles away (where the authorities for the first time since 1967 have covered Canada's centennial flame) than in Calgary.

In the city that is as near Kananaskis as press or protest-ers can get, the biggest stir was caused when a few dozen activists stripped naked outside a Gap clothing store to publicise the company's alleged use of child labour.

But the Canadians are taking no chances. A 150km no-fly-zone has been imposed around the site; on the ground, no one will be permitted within four miles of the Delta Lodge.

Anyone who goes past the area must navigate half a dozen separate roadblocks. There is even a roadblock outside Calgary's commercial airport, though the arriving summit leaders spent barely five minutes on the ground, just long enough for the mayor of Calgary to present them with white cowboy hats (Junichiro Koizumi of Japan seemed to love his; Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac hurriedly passed theirs to aides), before they were whisked off to Kananaskis by helicopter. Thus sped by their one moment of contact with ordinary Albertans.

At Kananaskis, the great men's well-being will be assured by laser-guided anti-aircraft, tanks and helicopters. Thousands of Canadian Mounties and military personnel are lurking behind almost every tree. This, Ottawa says, is the greatest peace-time security operation in the country's history, more than nine months in the planning.

Even the bears that inhabit the place are being monitored, not that anyone at the summit will get to see much of either them or the breathtaking mountain scenery that surrounds them.

Alas, the best-conceived security without cannot control what happens within. G7, now G8, summits have a wretched habit of being hijacked by the issue of the moment.

The last time Canada played host, at Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1995, intended measured deliberations on the future of the international monetary system were swept away by the Bosnian crisis; Birmingham 1998 was dominated by the virtually simultaneous nuclear tests by India and Pakistan.

The most productive G7 of recent times, beyond doubt, was in Cologne the following year when the leaders stuck to the agenda at hand and launched a bold plan to help the world's poorest countries.

But, by the time they met next, in Okinawa, Japan, Russia had become an official member of the club, and the impoverished of the planet were still waiting for Cologne's promises to be delivered.

As for Genoa 2001, that wretched meeting will be remembered only for the anti-globalisation demonstrations in which one protester was killed.

In an ideal world, Kananaskis would yield agreement to back a new plan to haul Africa from the abyss, and a serious debate on the prospects for the present fragile global economic recovery.

But again a host of potential agenda hijackers are present, the Middle East after Mr Bush's demand that Yasser Arafat be replaced, the renewed threat of US action against Iraq after the President's warning that America would take pre-emptive action against potential terror threats as it saw fit, and now, of course, the WorldCom crisis.

It is hard to keep the mind focused on rescuing Africa when stock markets are plummeting and the dollar is nosediving, and when Israel and the Palestinians threaten anew to be a bone of contention between America and its allies.

So is there any point at all in these gatherings, at least in their present format? Given Russia's rapprochement with the West, its presence – merely a sop to wounded national pride when Boris Yeltsin used to show up – is probably now justified. But if Russia, then why not China, a far more vibrant and significant economy?

And why not a few leading Third World nations, such as India, Brazil, South Africa or Nigeria, to present the other point of view to what is in practice a directory of the Western powers?

To be fair, President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria will be in the Rockies today, part of a delegation of African leaders and the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, who will be presenting Nepad (the New Partnership for Africa's Development), the plan for the poorest continent.

But they will be supplicants, not summit participants in their own right. To turn them away from the Delta Lodge door would be an unimaginable snub, and the host, Jean Chretien, Prime Minister of Canada, vows to keep the spotlight on Africa. But President Bush's interest in that continent is not believed to be all-consuming.

So why these summits, with all their falsely raised hopes, the physical dislocation, the ever more tiresome security hassle they generate in this age of terrorism, when leaders already see and speak to each other constantly?

The participants and the legendary "sherpas" who prepare them will say that nothing can replace extended face-to-face contact in a relaxed setting, without the pressure to reach decisions. Somewhat contradictorily, they also maintain that, contrary to what cynical journalists put about, the summits do produce concrete results.

Arguably, the best case for the G8 now is that it is the one forum in which American dominance is less absolute. It is a setting where the other leading countries of the world can most effectively seek to impress their views upon an American President with a disconcerting taste for unilateralism. Even so, and despite the attempted return to the first principles of Rambouillet, that case has rarely been harder to make.