A procession of the impoverished seeking crumbs from the rich men's table? A gesture of beneficence to the "natives" by the white man? Well, yes there is more than a bit of this. The G8 was after all founded as a group of 'advanced' nations to discuss the mutual problems of finance, trade and co-ordinated growth against the spurts and set-backs of the post oil-crisis world. They were gathered to make sure that the engines of growth kept on the track, to the benefits of the world at large.
Since then, of course, it has become more and more a political forum in which the leaders of the major powers can present a face to the world. The debates have been sidelined in the interests of the preamble of rhetorical ambition and the final communiqué of mutually agreed concern and good intentions for the future.
In that sense of course this meeting is all about gesture, and gestures that put its prime movers in the best possible lights to their domestic audience. All this talk about Tony Blair chancing his reputation, taking a gamble on the result and risking raising excessive expectations simply misses the point.
He already has enough agreement on debt and aid to Africa to proclaim historic progress, because these are issues on which none of the participants wishes to be seen as parsimonious. France regards Africa as its own special area of influence. President Bush wants to appeal to the Christian right, which fully supports more charity to Africa. Only Canada and Germany have no direct interest and take a more pragmatic view of what it will actually all achieve.
Nor will Blair, or Bush or President Chirac suffer if the climate change discussions get nowhere. It suits Blair at this moment to be seen to be taking a stronger line than Washington. It certainly suits Chirac to be seen to be leading an anti-American European initiative on the question, while Bush is quite happy to be seen to be defending US economic and corporate interests to a Congress that remains extremely nationalistic and resistant to anything that would affect US growth or US jobs.
President Bush's remark in an interview this week, in answer to the question of whether he would do anything to reward Blair on climate change, that "I go to the G8 not really trying to make him look bad or good, but I go to the G8 with an agenda that I think is best for our country," must be one of the most devastating put-downs since Henry V rejected Falstaff. But at least it's honest. The G8 can come out with very little new on Africa and climate change, add some help to the Palestinians in Gaza, and all the participants can go away happy.
That is as far as the participants from the G8 are concerned. And the Indians, Chinese, Brazilians and Africans in attendance? Well their part is really as bit players, there to make the right noises about the need to reduce carbon emissions and to say how grateful they are for whatever help Africa is getting.
Perhaps attendance at the feast will be enough for them. India and Brazil are desperately keen to become permanent members of the UN Security Committee, as is South Africa. So they will want to behave themselves at the G8.
But they shouldn't really. In the first place they have every right to ask that the G8 perform its traditional function of co-ordinating growth and smoothing bumps - tasks which it is clearly failing to address.
With exchange rates artificially contorted, massive trade deficits developing in the US, trade talks losing impetus, continental Europe stagnating and the oil price doubling within the space of a couple of years, no-one could say there isn't need for international action. The effect on Africa of the oil price increase alone is equivalent to something like 10 times the annual value of debt relief or increased aid.
There may be limits to what can be done immediately to stop it, but there are clear avenues of action on curbing use in the major consuming areas, easing fiscal policy to compensate for the effect on economic growth and, if nothing else, stopping a mad competitive scramble in Central Asia and elsewhere to tie up supplies. Talking aid is easy, managing economic pressures is much more difficult but arguably more important.
Beyond that, the outsiders to the G8 also have a right to ask where they fit in to such international organisations as this. It's clearly mad to have Russia as a member of the G8 but not China, or, in the future, India and perhaps Brazil. But then it also makes no sense to continue as we are in all sorts of other international organisations such as the UN and the World Bank as if nothing had changed since the end of the Second World War.
The G8 will end in smiles all round. There's no need to worry about that. But it's at the September meeting of the UN to consider changes in its structure and the trade talks in Hong Kong in December that the real hard negotiations will take place and we will see how far the West is prepared to share power and sacrifice its own benefits in the interests of the wider world.Reuse content