Leading Article: To Naples, for a game of charades

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The Independent Online
THE Group of Seven summit opening in Naples today brings together the heads of government of seven countries that together account for either half or three-quarters of the world's economic output, depending on how you measure it. With Boris Yeltsin co-opted temporarily for the political discussions, the club's membership also controls four out of the world's six most powerful military forces. Yet the chances are that the meeting will be a waste of time.

Take first the political discussions, to which the G7's members turn instinctively in search of an air of decisiveness and in the hope of a ringing conclusion for the final communique. The assembled politicians can usually rise above platitudes in their comments on at least one issue; this time, the matter at hand may be Bosnia. But the G7 can agree nothing here that might not have been arranged through the more flexible international contact group on Bosnia. On wider issues, such as deciding the principles of military intervention in other nations' internal affairs, or the threat of nuclear proliferation from North Korea, the UN Security Council would be a better forum.

The group's economic deliberations were weightier when Helmut Schmidt and Valery Giscard d'Estaing used to dominate the early G7 meetings in the Seventies. But the arrival of Reagan, Mitterrand and Kohl changed all that. Today's summiteers are less economically literate; perhaps consequently, their meetings have become more bureaucratic. Informal chat between the leaders is discouraged; instead, senior officials are expected to act as 'sherpas', preparing draft conclusions for discussions that have not yet even taken place. It is thus unrealistic to ask G7 summits to produce the long- term reforms to the world's economic institutions recommended by the Bretton Woods Commission headed by Paul Volcker, former head of the US Federal Reserve. The IMF, equipped with a permanent secretariat and with the ability to follow up on initiatives, is better placed to do this.

Even on short-term economic coordination, the G7 structure frustrates the summiteers. Without central bankers present and with little time, arguments over monetary and exchange rate policy are bound to be superficial and inconclusive. Too often, their deliberations are reduced to delivering complacent lectures to each other, which are forgotten as soon as they are made.

Perhaps the G7's fundamental problem is that it is one of the most conspicuous symbols of the power of the world's top politicians at a time when that power is waning. In the more cynical (or more realistic) Nineties, fewer people believe that presidents and prime ministers can change the world, whether by delivering full employment, or by preventing massacres of innocent people on the other side of the world.

Those of the G7 leaders who find time for reflection on their way home may find such thoughts humbling. Sadly, that will not prevent the entire charade from beginning again next time around.