G8 Summit 2013: Protesters Had a Point

On Monday, leaders from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, and Russia met in Northern Ireland for the 39th annual G8 summit. The summit also drew in protesters from across the globe who denounce the G8 as an instrument of wealthy international elites that exploits — rather than serves — both the citizens of its member nations and the inhabitants of the world’s poorest countries. How much truth, however, really lies in this assertion? In short, the rather disappointing answer is that this assertion, in a less-sensationalized form, calls attention to some valid discrepancies between the lofty rhetoric that surrounds the G8 summit and the reality of what is being discussed there.

The G8, or Group of Eight, was originally created in 1975 as the Group of Seven in order to create a loosely regulated forum for leaders from the world's largest non-communist economies to discuss pressing international issues. In 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the G7 expanded and became the G8 in order to include Russia, but since then, has remained closed to the rising economies of Brazil, China, and India — all of which currently rank amongst the world's eight largest economies. Accordingly, the G8 is a group of traditionally powerful western, European interests (which also includes the highly Westernized and Western-sympathetic Japanese government). Furthermore, the G8 has no formal charter, a limited bureaucratic structure, and no permanent chair (i.e. secretariat), making it a highly informal organization that primarily functions to provide Western leaders with both an opportunity and place to discuss their nations' interests.

As a result, the G8 is fundamentally a group that is dedicated to laying the groundwork for diplomatic progress on issues important to member countries, and, because the West houses many of the world's most wealthy people and multinational corporations, the G8 tends to represent those interests more effectively than the interest of the world’s poorest inhabitants living in emerging, non-member nations. The current G8 summit presents a primary example of this reality, as its official website indicates the gathering's agenda will have a heavy focus on providing aid to emerging nations while news reports more accurately indicated that military intervention in Syria, the NSA surveillance scandal, and breaking down trade barriers in order to allow G8 nations to export more goods — rather than aid emerging nations' development — dominated the summit.

On the home front, the G8 can also prove problematic in looking out for the best interests of its average citizens. In principal, the G8's focus on trade liberalization should serve the best interests of member nations' citizens in the long run as removing trade barriers will presumably allow all member countries to more effectively specialize their economic activity and therefore achieve a larger aggregate output (i.e. GDP). However, deciding exactly which trade barriers are dismantled produces a profound effect on the distribution of the country’s gained wealth. Therefore, as France demands that its domestic television and movie industries remained protected, and the Obama administration refrains from revoking the U.S. government's "buy American" requirements for many of its bureaucratic expenditures, G8 negotiations and agreements can have an immensely unfair effect on which particular citizens become either far worse or far better off in the short run as a result of enhanced free trade measures.