WASHINGTON - The G-8 summit that US President Bush and seven other world
leaders are attending next weekend in Russia is often billed as a gathering of
the world's leading economic powers. It is not. Consider: China, now the world's
fourth-largest economy and the nation with the most influence over North Korea,
is not a member.
Neither is India, one of its fastest-growing economies. Nor is South
Korea, Brazil, Mexico or Spain, each with a larger economy than G-8 member
Russia's. In fact, Spain recently inched past member Canada as the world's No. 8
economy, according to a World Bank tabulation.
Often officials from developing nations are invited as observers to the
summit but have no formal roles. Among those invited to this year's gathering is
Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Critics view the annual economic summit as a Cold War relic that needs to be
reconstituted. It was formed in the 1970s, but economic dynamics are far
different three decades later. The astonishing growth of some Asian nations and
parts of Latin America have altered the math.
Yet expanding or changing the membership is not on this year's agenda, nor is
it likely to be on next year's. Few officials from member nations seem eager to
talk about the subject.
White House aides insist the president is more focused on substantive issues.
Igor Shuvalov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's top summit adviser,
acknowledges that Russia lags behind the other seven members in terms of current
economic output. But stay tuned, he says.
"We believe the importance of Russia in our global world will change. We have
very talented people and well-educated labor. We have oil and gas," said
Shuvalov in a telephone interview with U.S. reporters. "We will develop very
quickly as one of the major G-8 countries."
Even now, Russia is economically "stronger than some G-8 members," Shuvalov
asserted without offering backup data. "I don't want to name those countries,"
What is now known as the G-8 was formed in 1975 as the Group of Major
Industrialized Democracies. At the time, it consisted of the United States,
Japan, Britain, France and Germany ¡ª undisputedly the world's five biggest
economic powers at the time. Italy was added in 1976, Canada in 1977 and Russia
The group holds annual summits. Economic themes are supposed to prevail, but
often are overshadowed by events of the day and global politics.
Last year's summit in Scotland was jolted by multiple terrorist bomb blasts
on London's transit system. This year's session probably will dwell on North
Korea's recent barrage of missile tests and the nuclear aspirations it shares
Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International and an expert on
economic summitry, advocates expanding the G-8 to include other modern economic
powers, especially China.
"When this group was formed in the 1970s, the members were the main
influences on the globe. Now you've got a lot of other countries that have a lot
more influence than they did 30 years ago and who are not in the process," said
Hormats, who helped Presidents Carter, Ford and Reagan prepare for economic
China's membership could help the G-8 this year deal with North Korea,
Hormats said. He noted that last year, the summit partners called on the
Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to produce more oil, yet neither
Saudi Arabia nor any other OPEC member are participants.
This year's summit is in Putin's hometown, St. Petersburg. It is Russia's
first time to hold the rotating G-8 presidency, a controversy itself given
Putin's moves to restrict political and economic freedoms.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., and former Secretary of
State Madeleine Albright have said Russia should be excluded. A London-based
think tank, the Foreign Policy Center, issued a report saying Putin's record
makes a mockery of G-8's commitment to free markets and open societies.
But others want Russia to stay and for other nations to join, including
nondemocracies that are big economies.
Johannes Linn and Colin Bradford, both former World Bank officials now with
the Brookings Institution, have proposed expanding the group to 19 to 20
They would add Australia, Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Korea,
Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey. They also would add the country
of the rotating presidency of the European Union if it was not already a member.
"The problem in a sense for the G-8 is that it has set itself up as a
quasi-steering group for the world, but it cannot effectively and cannot
legitimately deal with many of the key issues," Linn said.
And it will only get worse. "Five years from now, I cannot possibly see how a
G-8 would still be relevant," he said.
But will the G-8 transform itself anytime soon? "Probably not," he said.