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Academic Symposium G8 2000
New Directions in Global Governance? G8's Okinawa Summit

19 - 20 July, 200, University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa, Japan

The Roots of the New Consensus:
The United States and the Transformation of the G8 System

Gina Stephens, Ph.D. Candidate University of Toronto


In the post-Cold War era the G7/8 System has evolved in both its role and scope. Created originally as a vehicle for economic policy coordination among the major industrial powers of the Western world, the G7/8 has grown beyond its original purpose to become an increasingly credible source of global governance. Throughout the 1990's, the G7/8 has expanded its agenda to deal with global issues such as the environment, transnational crime, and social policies. This expansion seems to indicate an evolution of the Group's norms and principles, signaling a significant transformation of the institution itself.

The United States has always played a pivotal role within the G7/8. Indeed, some scholars believe that the very function and success of the Summit depends on the United States.i This paper will first trace the evolution of the G7/8 as an institution, examining its growing role in global issues, focussing particularly on its role in the post-Cold War transformation of Russia as first an issue, then as a member. I will then investigate the role of the United States in the current transformation of the G7/8 system, evaluating the evolution of new norms within the institution to decide if they are a product of US socialization, or if they are indicative of a much larger global trend. This paper will entertain the possibility that the new norms and principles embraced by the G8 indicate a transformation of the Group's function. Rather than simply being a tool for American hegemony, the Summit is increasingly functioning as a clearinghouse for international policy making based on issue-specific expertise. Although American leadership and influence within the G8 is still very prominent, the United States appears to be increasingly affected by other G8 member countries' policy initiatives. It is in fact observable, that the US has in many ways begun to depend on the variety of policy development abilities of its G8 counterparts. Instead of taking a dominant role in the development of G8 initiatives, the United States has begun to take advantage of the global expertise that its other G8 member countries bring into the Summit forum. U.S. strength (both economic and military) and authority is still essential for effective G8 initiatives, but it looks increasingly to the smaller members for policy innovation. Thus we see a feedback effect in the broadening of American policy alternatives within the G8 through the input of other members. These policy alternatives also act as Trojan Horses, carrying with them their author country's underlying norms and principles within that particular issue area. Thus we see a gradual transformation of the norms and principles of the G8 itself.

In this new era of globalization, the G8 is now evolving as policy marketplace and melting pot for global governance. The recent trend to involve developing countries and non-governmental organizations in the G8 process will only serve to intensify this new feature. Indeed, the Okinawa Summit may mark another historic transformation of the G8 with the creation of a new and permanent mechanism for the participation of civil society and developing countries in the year-round Summit process. This paper will conclude with an evaluation of the significance of the Okinawa Summit formula for the future of the G8 and global governance as a whole.

PART I: The Evolution of the G7/8 System – A Record of Transformation

The G7 Summit was formed in 1975 in the shadow of crisis. This period was marked by a number of shocks to the international system: the oil crisis of 1973-4, the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system, and economic recession. The situation of its birth had a profound effect on the purpose and function that the Summit served in those early years. The Rambouillet Summit inaugurated an institution that was, in its first years, designed primarily to assist its members. In this sense it had a rather narrow scope, being concerned primarily with economic coordination among the members themselves. As a diplomat recently commented, the Rambouillet years made a "little footprint" in terms of global governance.


The atmosphere of the Cold War and bipolarity did much to shape the Summits of the 1980's. Although the Summit's political agenda expanded, transforming the institution from merely a vehicle for economic coordination to one that was equally concerned with the political aspects of the international system, most issues were dealt with through the rubric of the American-Soviet global face-off. The Summits of the 80s did expand the scope of the Summit as an institution, but it lacked a socially sensitive conception of a global commons and the sense of global management. Rather it was a fortress for the values of democracy and capitalism against the communist menace.

The 1990s was a decade of global system change. It is in this period that we saw the most dramatic transformation of the G7/8 as an institution. The Soviet Union and its East European Communist Bloc unraveled economically and socially. The G7, as the representatives of the victorious principles of democracy and capitalism faced the responsibility of managing the international system transformation. It was a challenge that was met squarely with a great deal of success. Indeed, it was this task that provided the impetus for its own dramatic institutional expansion. In many ways, the transformation and reintegration of Russia into the international community of states and a new G8 was a product of an ideological shift in the United States. It is the story of this transformation that is key to an understanding of the current shift in Summit function and scope for global governance.

When Gorbachev first hinted at Russian involvement in the G7 in 1989, the European powers of Germany and France were positive and encouraging but were stalled by the Americans, Canadians, and the Japanese. After the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, it was the Americans under George Bush who prevented an effective aid package at the Munich Summit in 1992. Too much money was pledged without the will to actually deliver the funds. Although Russia was no longer in the hands of Communists, the Republican President and veteran of the new Cold War in the 1980s remained distrustful of Russia despite the best wishes of his European colleagues. The Summit was only truly successful in meeting this challenge with the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton. Clinton had a personal vision for the democratization and socialization of Russia and was determined to use the G7 as a vehicle to achieve this historic transformation. In this case, it was the Americans who provided leadership and impetus to a project that had been begun by the European powers. Following Clinton's election, Russia was brought into the actual Summit process itself in Naples in 1994. Prior to Naples, the Russian leader met with the G7 on the sidelines of the actual Summit as a supplicant for aid. Until Naples, Russia was really only dealt with as an issue area. Following Naples, Russia was treated as a participant and a candidate for full membership.

This change is largely attributable to the personal engagement of Bill Clinton and his advisor Strobe Talbot who was a long-time friend and an expert on Russia. It was Clinton who grasped the historical potential of reintegrating Russia into the global community of states. Russia had lost the Cold War and should not be isolated but rather should be socialized. Clinton truly understood the lesson of Weimar, Germany. Thus, it is not surprising that it was an American Summit that gave Russia full membership in the G8. Denver 1997 completed the process begun in 1993 by Clinton. The expansion to the Summit of the Eight, later named the G8, gave the Summit system a truly global reach and role. The test to reintegrate Russia intensified the institution's ability to manage international political and economic order on a grand scale. The fact that this major systemic transformation was engineered by the G7 as opposed to the Atlantic institutions or the UN is a telling testament to this fact.

On a parallel track to the project of constructing a post-Cold War world order, was an equally important task of managing the ever-increasing speed of globalization and its unforeseen side effects. The trend for Summits to be more outwardly focussed, examining problems that affect not only G7 members, but the world as a whole, had begun in the early post-Cold War years. A greater emphasis on what were traditionally European values of environmental conservation, development, and international institutional reform became a regular feature of the Summits. As well, the increased political and economic freedom generated by the post-Cold War era gave impetus to the trend toward interdependence and the negative and positive aspects that flowed from it. The Lyon Summit in 1996 was the first Summit to deal with the concept of globalization. The communiqué itself was entitled, "Making a success of globalization for the benefit of all." The Summits that followed Lyon, demonstrated a growing recognition by the Summit leaders that even the most powerful countries were not isolated from the problems of the poorest nations. The environment, social, political, and financial consequences of poverty and strife in the developing world was not merely something that was pitiable, it was something that had implications for the G8 countries. Infectious diseases, civil war, genocide, financial mismanagement in one part of the world had a ripple effect on the rest of the globe, with a speed that was truly sobering. In particular, the late 1990s financial crises in the NICs proved this point.

So how have these factors and trends in international system and Summit development changed the structure of the Summit and how it functions? How have they changed the underlying norms and principles that guide the institution itself, and how one of its foremost members, the United States performs within it? What are the theoretical underpinnings of these changes and what do they mean for the future of summitry? These are the questions that I will explore in the next section of this paper.

PART II: New Norms for a New Century – the Roots of the New Consensus

As outlined above, the end of the Cold War and the reintegration of Russia into the international community of democratic, market-oriented nations, as well as the new vulnerability created by globalization has brought about a variety of changes in the G8 system. Firstly, the G8 has grown in scope, taking on an ever-growing agenda of global issues. Originally designed as an institution to manage international economic relations between the richest industrialized countries, the focus of this Group has shifted from a largely internal agenda, to one that encompasses governance at the global level. Likewise, due to the increase in the number of issue areas that are dealt with, the G8 system itself has grown with an ever-increasing proliferation of annual ministerial meetings, working groups, and ad hoc issue-specific meetings. This growth has produced a high degree of interconnectedness between the governments of the G8 countries, connections that exist on many levels from the departmental bureaucracies to that of the leaders. Connections between the G8 and other multilateral organizations, such as the IMF and the World Bank have also intensified, with the G8 playing a steering and leadership role.

The combination of these two factors -- the advancing agenda of the G8 in terms of the increased number of issue areas that it now deals with, as well as the growing complexity of political and economic ties between G8 member states -- has created a transformation of the internal functioning of the institution and the values that it embraces. These factors and the dictates of globalization have also greatly affected the role of the United States within the G8 and within the international system as a whole. Where traditionally the United States may have taken an overarching leadership role within the institution due to its superpower status and overwhelming relative capability, the later part of the twentieth century has demonstrated an evolution of its role within the Group to that of a more equal player, but one whose engaged participation is still very important to the success of Summit initiatives.

Traditional theories of summit function have often differed in their estimation of the importance of the United States within the G7/8. The original landmark theory of Summit function was developed by Robert Putnam and Sir Nicholas Bayne in their 1985 book Hanging Together.iii Putnam and Bayne suggest that should the United States prove itself willing and able to lead on an initiative, that initiative would likely be successful with the support of at least one other country within the G7. This theory was largely a product of the authors' observation of the Summit's record from the period of its inception until the late 1980's. Certainly, for most of the G7/8's history, American leadership has been a crucial factor to summit success. The earlier discussion of the United States' role in Russian aid and membership underscores this observation. Yet if one looks at the more recent summit record, it is clear that American leadership is no longer as crucial to Summit success as it was in earlier years. Sir Nicholas Bayne himself has observed that current summits have moved closer to genuine collective management between Europe, North America, and Japan. Sir Nicholas observes that many of the most successful contemporary initiatives have been spawned by countries and coalitions other than the United States. iv

This view is very similar to the summit function theory advanced by John Kirton. Kirton's model of Concert Equality likens the Summit to the 1818 Concert of Europe System, where the most powerful states in the global system came together to act in concert to maintain peace in the international system.v Within the Concert, each country had an equal voice. Like the G8 Summit system, the Concert of Europe was characterized by a pattern of consultation at the leader level. In terms of the G7, Kirton suggests that as American hegemony and economic strength begins to wane, the equality of all summit participants leads to more effective results for the Group as a whole. The Concert Model is a somewhat idealized version of G8 function. Although American power globally is not nearly as strong as it was in the past two decades, the United States is still the most predominant global power. This fact does influence the outcomes of the Summit and not necessarily in adverse ways. G8 action on Kosovo for example, was overwhelmingly supported by American security capabilities. Had the United States not wanted to take action in Kosovo, it is doubtful that any success could have been achieved in their absence even by a coalition of other G8 powers.

Both Putnam and Bayne's model and Kirton's model have their merits and when applied to different case studies, each seems to be effective. I would suggest that an updated synthesis of these two models would be effective in explaining Summit function in the new millenium. The United States' economic and military capabilities, although they are waning, were essential for the peaceful transition to a post-Cold War Era. But the G7 as an institution was clearly essential for enacting successful American policy in the area. In many ways the Summit has a socializing effect on the US and serves to broaden policy alternatives and subtly alter the underlying normative values of these policies within the G8 arena. The Summit is in fact a policy melting pot for global governance. Although the US still provides the strength and authority for major action, the smaller countries of the G8 can influence US policy making through the forum of the Summit system. Increasingly throughout the last five years, the United States has preferred to let the other members of the G8 put forward policy initiatives that showcase their own particular issue-specific expertise. In short, America has been less likely to lead, preferring to "shop around" for policy alternatives initiated by other G8 members. As the only remaining superpower in the international system, American interests and capabilities are thinly spread throughout the globe. The United States can no longer field the resources for global governance on its own. Yet it's continued economic and military strength allow it to co-opt some of the more ambitious initiatives of its other summit members who have issue-specific capabilities. Thus, the US has put strength not only behind initiatives that weren't originally of their making, they have also adopted, within the G8, the new norms that underscore these initiatives brought forward by other G8 members. Thus, largely European norms regarding the conservation of the environment on a global scale have been supported by the United States within the G8 and without. Human rights issues that are particularly important to Canada, especially those concerning human security have also been given American support. The United States has realized that the reality of globalization has made it impossible for the US to shape the global order by itself in isolation. There are too many issues to deal with for one country – issues that are increasingly complicated by the interconnectedness of the globalized international system.

At the end of the 1990's the G8 seems to have internalized the lessons created by the downside of globalization, particularly those concerning the cost of financial crisis contagion and the marginalization of the poorest. This realization has led to a new conception by the G8 of a global commons and the need for increased legitimacy in their own practices of global governance. This has in many ways changed the way that G8 members think of their own institution as well as the way its members approach their own identities within the international community. Fundamental change in the core values of the Summit, such as working toward inclusion and sustainable prosperity for all nations, not merely those that are of immediate interest geopolitically to the G8 members, is clearly evident. With increased emphasis on issues such as the environment, human security, debt reduction for the poorest countries, and conflict prevention, the G8 has made strides toward embedding the norms of global conservation and basic human rights into the structure of global governance. They have realized that globalization has led to an international system that is "hyperconnected"…that is to say that the increased complexity of the connections (both political and economic) between all regions of the world create vulnerabilities among both the very large, rich countries and the smaller, developing countries. For example, the financial crises that have occurred over the last five years have demonstrated this fact and the G8 leaders have observed this phenomena and have learned their lesson. In the coming century, the industrialized world is increasingly affected by what happens in the outer reaches of the developing world. Armed conflict, the spread of infectious diseases, and financial crises affect the entire global system. The agenda for the Okinawa Summit, which will be examined in the following section of this paper, contains ample evidence that the leaders of the G8 finally understand this. This understanding is slowly reshaping the G8 members' conception of their identity, both as members of the G8 and as members of a larger global commons.

PART III: The Significance of the Okinawa Summit and the Expansion of G8 Global Governance

I will now turn to the subject of the Okinawa Summit and its significance to the expansion of G8 global governance and the embedding of new socially inclusive norms within the G8 system.

The agenda for Okinawa is ambitious. A central theme is that of Information Technology. While information technology will be addressed by the G8 in terms of e-commerce, there are also wide-ranging discussions of the impact of information technology on a north-south basis. A new working group will be unveiled at this year's summit that is appointed to deal with the issues of digital divide. It will attempt to formulate policies and measures that will help developing countries and the underprivileged keep pace with the IT revolution and its benefits. This group will be comprised of representatives from the G8 itself, other international organizations, NGOs and developing countries. This is merely one of the agendas of the Okinawa Summit that emphasize inclusion and protection of a global commons.

The concerns of developing countries are threaded throughout the Summit agenda. The leaders of the G8 will in fact meet with representatives of developing nations in the pre-Summit period in Tokyo. Although this isn't the first time that a Summit has included developing countries on its margins, this meeting in combination with the broadly inclusive stance toward NGOs highlights an underlying concern for the less powerful and indicates a move toward a more plurilateral Summit system.

The problem of infectious diseases and their impact in the developing world will also be discussed in great detail at this Summit and a concrete action plan will be unveiled with solid dollar figure contribution in the billions. More importantly, the G8 will emphasize the importance of NGOs in the delivery of these funds and the programs that they support on the ground.

Perhaps the most historically significant feature of the Okinawa Summit will be the direct inclusion of civil society groups during the Summit itself. The G8 will provide NGOs with their own press centre and the resources to accredit their members and hold press briefings. In addition, the leaders of the G8 will meet with representatives of civil society organizations during the Summit to gain input from these groups. This type of direct inclusion is likely to continue at future summits. It is clear that the G8 have learned their lesson in the wake of the Seattle WTO debacle and have realized the importance of including civil society in the Summit system and in the overall task of global governance itself.

It is demonstrably clear that the Summit is moving in the direction of greater inclusiveness to both developing countries and to civil society groups that advocate for transnational coalitions. The G8 has become increasingly sensitive to the need for legitimacy and greater transparency in their governance. The conception of global society as an organic unit is an underlying feature of most G8 discussions this year. The evolution of these new norms of socially sustainable prosperity and concern for the global commons that had its roots in the 1996 Lyon Summit, where the word "globalization" was first used in the communiqué, have grown and show evidence of becoming embedded in the Summit process. In this manner, Okinawa will set the tone for the next quarter century of Summitry and the transformation of the G8 as an increasingly effective centre for global governance.

  1. Putnam, Robert and Bayne, Nicholas (1987), Hanging Together.

  2. Salah Hannachi, Ambassador of Tunisia, Remarks at United Nations University Public Policy Conference, Tokyo, 17 July 2000.

  3. Robert Putnam, Nicholas Bayne, (1987) Hanging Together.

  4. Sir Nicholas Bayne, "The Okinawa Opportunity: A G8-Developing Country Dialogue", Conference at the United Nations University, Tokyo, 17 July 2000.

  5. John Kirton, "Contemporary Concert Diplomacy: The Seven Power Summit and the Management of International Order". Paper prepared for the 1989 International Studies Association meeting in London, England.

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