The principal British objective is to try to get away from elaborate stage-managed occasions to more informal meetings with a chance to discuss common concerns. The British view the G7 not as a body to take decisions - that is for the IMF, NATO, the UN Security Council -rather, it provides an opportunity to talk. It would, in the view of several British FCO officials, be very dangerous if the G7 seized an issue and then became responsible for it - such as reform of UN institutions. From a UK point of view there have been some worthwhile initiatives arising from the G7 meetings, such as the G7 task force on money laundering established in 1990 as part of the G7's concern about international drug trafficking. This task force includes other countries but one of the G7 assumes the leadership role. It provides a good example of recognising a problem and giving a push to establishing a group (which once established is no longer a G7 group) in an area not covered by existing international organisations. One can also point to the G7's initiatives in debt relief for poorer countries as a substantive achievement. Although the various working groups of the G7 has established have often been valuable - such as the group working on nuclear safety in Russia - these groups should not simply acquire a life of their own and continue indefinitely.
The flexibility and lack of institutional rigidities is, in the British view, helpful in producing initiatives, provided the conditions are right. Summits are chiefly valuable for the opportunity they provide for leaders to get to know each other, to sit around the table and learn about the problems and constraints faced by their fellow Heads. "They are in that sense an institutional safety net against misperceptions proliferating", in the view of one British observer.(23)
A lot of time at the last two summits (Munich and Tokyo) have been spent on G7 aid to Russia: macroeconomic assistance, privatisation, support for science, nuclear safety, trade, technical assistance. There were hopes that at Naples Russia would be less of an issue since President Yeltsin is serving out his term with the substantial powers conferred on him by the new Russian Constitution, but the success of anti- reformist parties in the December Parliamentary elections almost guarantees that the G7 will need to devote a great deal of attention to Russia and the other FSU states. It is for this reason that Britain now supports the notion of full Russian participation in the G7's political (but not economic) deliberations, in order to strengthen President Yeltsin's domestic position and engage Russia constructively in international peace and security questions. In this respect -- the attempt to consolidate and advance the transformation of Russia -- the G7 has very considerable assets as a group, having for the last three years established itself as the principal interlocutor between the Yeltsin reformists and the main sources of financial and technical assistance.
The G7 has, in the view of several British observers and participants, served to engage Japan internationally and at Tokyo its role as host country increased the pressure on Japan to avoid a row on such matters as help for Russia. Even if the P5 become the P7 (permanent members of the UN Security Council) there is still a role for the G7: it accounts for a large share of world trade, the participants are all pluralistic democracies, and there is now almost 20 years of experience shared between them. It is a habit that can't be bad and can reduce misunderstanding. Peter Norman of the Financial Times places the value of the G7 summits in the context of his theory of perception lag: "information moves at the speed of light, understanding at the speed of sail." In this respect a less structured summit could serve the same therapeutic function as a cruise for the participants. As one Treasury official put it:
The streamlining of G7 summits confronts problems of coalition governments, local politics, and the need of the Heads for a certain degree of ceremonial. If things are going well people like a good show, while when things go badly the summits don't produce and thus get criticised in the media. The perceived failure of the Munich summit to answer the problems of the time gave impetus to the idea of reducing the cost of summits at a time when unemployment lines were lengthening. There is a danger of summits being narrowed down: will they be accessible to mind-expanding ideas rather than over-the-shoulder looks at the political environment and a tendency to muddle along? Summits run the danger of being hijacked by events and if they become more informal they might become even more event-led. It should also be noted that the session in Tokyo devoted to informal discussion ended early because the Heads ran out of things to discuss. Getting expectations to balance with reality is difficult; it would be good to reduce expectations, but not to reduce them so low as to reduce support for the very idea of having the summits at all.
At the same time, it is important not to judge the utility of the G7 primarily on the basis of its achievements (or lack of them) at the summits. As Nicholas Bayne has argued:
Unless the summits can shed the exaggerated expectations invested in them they will, however, reliably create further apathy or even hostility -- thus endangering the network which has made a substantive (if not substantial) contribution to the promotion of international stability.
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