This year's G-8 summit, held in St. Petersburg, may well enter into history as the one that marked Russia's return as a major power. The grand setting of the exercise reminded some participants of the old imperial days when Russia was the key player in both Europe and Asia.
Nevertheless, the St. Petersburg summit may have also spelled the end of the exercise, a brainchild of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1976 that was initially intended to coordinate the economic policies of the seven major capitalist powers. Over the years, the economic aspects of the exercise have been pushed into the background in favor of its political role. By 2000, some commentators even referred to the G-8 as a global Politburo whose task was to impose some order on the chaotic situation that followed the end of the Cold War.
St. Petersburg, however, showed that there is no Politburo and that the participants, with the European Union assigned a flip-up, cannot even agree on an analysis of the major international problems, let alone work together to find a solution.
Let us have a look at some of the issues beginning with international terrorism. Some members believe that hey are engaged in a global war against a deadly enemy that is impervious to the usual diplomatic formulae for sorting out differences of opinion and clashes of interest. Others acknowledge the existence of a terrorist threat but do not believe it has a global dimension. When it hits them, it is terrorism; but when it hits others, it is "political violence."
The group is also divided over the issue of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Some members believe that nuclear bombs in the hands of the North Korean Stalinists or the Iranians, is not the same thing as in democratic France or, indeed, India. Others believe that since possession of nuclear weapons is not illegal, there are no grounds for coercive action to prevent even the "rogue states" from building the bomb.
Another point of division concerns the role of the United Nations. Some members believe that the UN, which was designed for a different age, needs fundamental structure reform, to prevent it from being used as an instrument of legitimizing "rogue states."
While some members of the G-8 see the United States as a force for good and the only power capable of standing up to "rogue states" in the war against terrorism, others see American policy as disruptive and dangerous.
Because of these and other divisions, the summit failed to come up with a joint analysis of the problems discussed. It did issue a number of diplomatic statements that were almost instantly contradicted by individual participants.
The long-promised common stance on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear dossiers did not materialize, confirming the view in Pyongyang and Tehran that they can getaway with whatever it is doing and should not be doing.
Nowhere were the divisions more manifest than over the issue of the current war between Israel and Hezbollah. While the US, and to a lesser extent Canada and Britain, blame the Hezbollah for having triggered the war and regard the disarming of its militia as a legitimate and necessary goal, others, notably Russia and France, insist that the blame is shared by Israel, implying moral equivalence.
The divisions reflected at the St. Petersburg summit also exist in the domestic politics of each and every one of the eight participants. There is no consensus on any of the issues in any of the countries present — hence the tendency of most leaders to speak with a forked tongue.
To complicate matters further, all of the participants are politically weak and vulnerable.
President Bush is faced with what amounts to an American political civil war in which his government is often regarded by its domestic opponents as worse than any real or imaginary foreign foe could be. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair faces a massive media and political campaign to force him to resign in favor of his Chancellor of Exchequer Gordon Brown.
In France, President Jacques Chirac has been a lame duck for some three years and is more focused on the legal problems he might face at the end of his term next May than any grand global strategy. Russia's Putin may look strong but is also preoccupied with problems of his fast approaching succession. In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi still basks in the afterglow of his most recent electoral triumph. But, he, too, is preparing his retirement from politics.
In Italy, Romano Prodi, the new prime minister, has a majority of just one vote in the Parliament and has to spend more energy on keeping the tendencies of his coalition under control than claiming leadership on global issues. As for Canada, Premier Stephen Harper may well have a clear vision of the global situation. But, he, too, heads a weak and beleaguered coalition
Finally, we have the new Iron Lady of global politics, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seen by some as the only major figure capable of offering G-8 a measure of leadership. And yet Merkel too is tied down by the rules of a coalition whose two members are deeply divided on almost every major international issue.
The G-8's current weakness would not merit any particular attention had it not been for the fact that it might promote positions designed to fudge the issues. For example, the equivocal position adopted by the G-8 on the issue of Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions is bad for all concerned.
It would encourage hard-liners in Tehran and Pyongyang while preventing those who believe strong action is needed from making any meaningful move. On the current Hezbollah-Israel war, too, the G-8's weak position may encourage the most radical elements within that movement to refuse concessions that could defuse the situation. Hard-line Hezbollah elements may believe that, if worse came to the worst, the international community would not allow Israel to destroy their movement.
The latest G-8 made one point abundantly clear: The device is no longer relevant to international politics. Even when it comes to economic issues, its original raison d'etre, the G-8 is paralyzed. (It was even unable to persuade the US to remove its veto over the membership of Russia in the World Trade Organization.)
Over a decade after the end of the Cold War we are experiencing the revival of classical international politics in the form of national rivalries. This is neither good nor bad; it was the pattern of international life for centuries and only temporarily occulted by ideological considerations during the Cold War. There is no harm in nation-states seeking to protect and enhance their legitimate interests, let alone defend themselves against enemies that pose an existential threat. But there is harm in presenting national interests as international imperatives. In that sense, the G-8 could do more harm than good.