G8 leaders have waning powers to fix the world
LONDON // As anti-capitalist demonstrators gathered in Belfast, Northern Ireland, to protest against the G8 summit starting today, a familiar annual ritual of discontent seemed to be playing itself out again.
The protesters carried signs and shouted slogans calling for an end to world poverty and deploring first-world greed.
But something is different this year - neither demonstrators nor summit participants seem to know anymore what the G8 is for.
What was once a forum for the world's economic powerhouses to discuss lofty global intentions seems likely this year to be dominated by machinations over Syria.
Barack Obama, the US president, and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, are to hold a private meeting today before the summit opens. The meeting assumes heightened significance following the US decision last week to extend military support to rebels seeking to overthrow the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, of whom Russia remains a staunch ally.
Moscow has been highly critical of the US decision, which it maintains is based on a flawed premise that the Syrian military has used chemical weapons during the two-year civil war.
After talks yesterday with David Cameron, the British prime minister and this year's G8 president, Mr Putin questioned why the West would want to arm "people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines", referring to internet footage of a rebel soldier eating what appeared to be the heart of a government soldier.
Mr Putin said he wanted to help broker a peace deal for Syria, but Mr Cameron admitted that there were "very big differences" between Russia and Britain's perceptions of the situation there.
Meetings between G8 members in favour of arming the rebels - including Britain and France - and those opposed, such as Germany, will overshadow any other agreements reached during the summit.
The diminished expectations are a break with the political theatre of summits past, which saw high-minded pledges to end global ills.
Mr Cameron addressed poverty and hunger - stalwart issues of summits past - at the G8 Nutrition for Growth conference in London on June 8.
This was familiarly grand territory. Mr Cameron's predecessor, Gordon Brown, tried to tackle the global financial crisis at a G20 summit in 2009. And Mr Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, vowed to "make poverty history" when Britain last chaired the G8 in 2005.
But the official aims for this year's G8 are far more low key. The focus is on what Mr Cameron described in London last Wednesday as the "vital drivers of growth" - trade, tax and transparency.
Another "T", terrorism, is also on the agenda.
A less grandiose approach partly reflects the waning importance of the G8, whose traditional make-up is increasingly anachronistic, analysts argue. Without China and other emerging powers such as India and Brazil, or Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer, it is increasingly difficult to pass off the grouping of the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and Russia as the world's economic powerhouse.
Mr Cameron conceded as much on Wednesday, noting the growing importance of the G20 and describing the G8 as having "gone back a bit to what it used to be … more of an informal conversation".
Yet even previous G8 summits had a decidedly mixed track record in achieving their many promises.
A 2009 commitment to contribute US$20 billion (Dh73.5bn) to tackle world hunger, for instance, was widely welcomed. To date, however, only 22 per cent of that money has been delivered, according to Action Aid, a non-governmental organisation.
Meanwhile, the summit's achievements, such as the creation of an international database on paedophiles and information-sharing on terrorism, could have come to fruition without a summit, argued Tom Papworth, the associate director of economic policy at Centre Forum, a liberal think tank based in London.
On the streets of Belfast, activists seem to also have lower expectations. On Saturday, a little more than 1,000 protesters showed up, far fewer than in past years.
In 2001, for instance, about 200,000 antiglobalisation protesters gathered at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, with riots, mass arrests, hundreds of wounded and one death, a young Italian anarchist. In Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2005, 250,000 people turned out to protest the gathering.
This year's summit will continue to attract protests, of course, and produce some headline-grabbing promises. It may even result in agreements to try to stamp out tax avoidance and evasion by major companies.
But the real significance of the gathering this year may lie more in what G8 summits can no longer be about - huge promises on global issues and protests of equally significant discontent. Their efficacy as an opportunity for world leaders to tackle issues in an informal manner, as Mr Cameron seems to want, will be sorely tested by Syria.