Leading article: G8: all mouth and no morals

THERE was nothing wrong with Tony Blair's pre-summit rhetoric. He told an interviewer last week that it was important the G8 meeting wasn't just a talking-shop, and that the leaders of the West plus Russia should set out "some clear directions". Such as? The international finance system; organised crime; the global environment; debt relief and, of course, the millennium bug. India, Indonesia, Kosovo, Ireland and the Middle East were then tacked on to the agenda. An ambitious list, even for the "most powerful men in the world". A fine weekend in Birmingham may prove insufficient to resolve such a complex variety of problems. This summit, like most of its predecessors, is unlikely to live up to Mr Blair's pre-conference billing. There are a number of reasons for this.

G8 summits are over-organised. Birmingham was an imaginative choice. But given the pub lunches, the state banquets and the FA Cup Final it is hard to see when Bill Clinton, Helmut Kohl, Boris Yeltsin and the rest of them could find time to get any work done. There is at least no shortage of "sherpas". In fact, the whole affair is seriously overmanned, with some 2,000 delegates in attendance. The deliberations are being followed by 3,000 journalists. The total cost - estimated at some pounds 9m - would feed many hungry mouths elsewhere. It is a far cry from the summit's modest beginnings, back in the days when Harold Wilson, Giscard d'Estaing and Jimmy Carter ran the show. The first meeting, in 1975, was held in a chateau at Rambouillet outside Paris. The premises, although sumptuous, were rather cramped, even though attendance was limited to presidents, prime ministers and their finance ministers. But there was an intimate air, an emphasis on informality, and a clear focus on a single issue - the world economy. Moreover, the press was kept waiting outside the gates. Most important, those involved were anxious not to raise expectations. For the jaded leaders of the West it was a pleasant, educative and useful talking-shop, and they didn't pretend that it was much else.

But the failings of the more recent gatherings - when the G7 had become the G8 - are not explained simply by overcrowded agendas and unrealistic hopes. Recent events suggest the G8 is running low on economic, political and moral capital. The inability to deal with the financial crisis in South-east Asia shows the limits of the power of great nations faced by the weight of the global economy. In Indonesia, we have witnessed the most spectacular failure of intelligence and of policy. The Indian government shows an understandable reluctance to be told what to do by a group that includes powers that have not always been scrupulous about their own nuclear test programmes.

The most insidious feature of these summits, however, is that they have become a substitute, both for positive unilateral action by individual nations and for multilateral action through established international institutions. The dead hand of summitry consensus lies especially heavily on the urgent task of relieving the debts of the developing countries. There is still much scope for wealthy nations to take unilateral action. Of course, some of the problems do require international co-ordination. This summit has at least given pressure groups the chance to raise the profile of the issue. But how much more could be done without waiting for the G8's leaders to sit down together round the banqueting table. Bodies such as the IMF and the World Bank can be told to proceed with ways of wiping out these debts. But they need to be given orders and there is, so far, a dismal poverty of political will in this matter. It is particularly disappointing that Japan and Germany fail to recognise the moral dimension in their financial relationship with the poorest nations. There is also a practical consideration: they are unlikely ever to get their money back.

You do not need to organise a Tower of Babel above a Bull Ring to recognise that many of these debts are unpayable. These are nations whose debt payments represent absurd proportions of their export earnings; 3,671 per cent (Somalia), 934 per cent (Nicaragua), 517 per cent (Laos). We ought to remind German bankers that, in the days before the G7 was invented, in 1953, the British and Americans cancelled German debts because they represented more than 5 per cent of her trade revenues. Germany will be host at next year's meeting, and the agenda should be written under general headings such as far-sightedness and generosity of spirit; the proceedings should be inspired by clarity, modesty and intimacy. That could lead to a summit with impact.