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Reporter’s Notebook: Is the G-8’s Purpose Waning?

To paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, the annual summit of the leaders of the world’s major industrial nations, known as G-8, may be facing its rendezvous with irrelevance.

What began amid the oil shocks and stagflation of 1975 as a dinner among six world leaders has mushroomed into political and media extravaganzas way out of proportion to their actual accomplishments.

Now, in the face of the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression, other multinational groupings representing newly important players on the world scene have sprouted into prominence. And questions are being raised in Western and other world capitals about the usefulness of an economic summit that does not directly involve China, India, Brazil and other emerging powers.

For 13 years, journalist Reginald Dale covered economic summits for the Financial Times and the International Herald Tribune. (I have covered two.) He was there for the first when West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and French President Giscard d’Estaing came up with the idea of a quiet huddle of major leaders to sort through the issues.

“They thought they were superior to everyone else in economic leadership,” Dale said. Joining them for a Saturday night dinner in the French countryside were President Gerald Ford and the leaders of Britain, Japan and Italy. Only a clutch of journalists took note of the event. The next year’s summit, hosted by President Ford in Puerto Rico, brought in Canada and the year after the president of the commission of the European Community (now the European Union). Russia became a full member in 1998.

Initially, according to Dale, only economic issues were on the table, but political issues from the Middle East to global warming gradually took on increasing prominence. And the press corps expanded exponentially, perhaps reaching its most absurd level at the 1979 summit in Tokyo when the BBC sent six anchors and Japan’s leading newspaper dispatched 300 reporters in three 100-person shifts.

As the press corps grew, so did the spin from national leaders and delegations. From a joint communique and then a joint press conference, the information gorge now includes national on-the-record briefings as well as countless background sessions as each leader tries to convince the voters back home that he or she is fighting for their interests.

Out of so many gatherings, stories emerge, especially from the era when the two conservative leaders, President Ronald Reagan and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, were often arrayed against their colleagues. Dale recalls Thatcher arriving at the 1981 summit and brushing right past a short man wearing a baggy jacket who could have been the butler. She was dragged back by her advisers to greet the newly elected president of France, Francois Mitterrand.

And before the 1983 summit in Williamsburg, Va., President Reagan had to sheepishly admit to his aides that he had not opened a briefing book the night before because he decided to watch the first network telecast of “The Sound of Music.”

The protocol miscues that accompany a meeting of so many heads of state and government, such as President Jimmy Carter planting a kiss on Britain’s Queen Mother at the 1977 London summit, are one-day stories. Others have more lasting consequences. In 1984, the leaders of France, Britain and the U.S. left the summit for the 40th anniversary observances of D-Day, but did not invite West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. A year later, he staged his own war memorial observance, a trip with President Reagan to the Bitburg Cemetery, where it turned out there were SS grave sites. It was one of the major public relations fiascos of the Reagan administration.

And at this year’s summit in L’Aquila, site of the devastating earthquake earlier this year, the opportunities for creative journalism are immense. The host, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is under media and political pressure at home following an angry separation from his wife amid allegations he was dating an 18-year-old and hosting parties for young models and starlets at his Sardinia villa. And the sight of world leaders gathering in the few surviving buildings of L’Aquila, while many of the residents are still being housed in tents, has its own potential for a public relations nightmare.

Officially, the agenda for L’Aquila includes financial regulation; energy and environment, Africa and combating world hunger. But the backdrop obviously is the global economic crisis and whether the G-8 leaders will be putting forward any new strategies for re-invigorating the world economy.

But as several diplomats here acknowledge, the G-8 no longer is the principal forum for tackling the issues that arose out of last year’s economic collapse. The real action, they agree, is at the G-20, a grouping of nations that comprise 87 percent of the world’s economic output. Already there have been two G-20 summits in less than six months and a third coming in September. At these sessions, China is a major player, not merely an invited guest as at the G-8. Also at the G-20 meetings are other economic powers such as India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. And from those G-20 meetings have come specific mandates to such existing international organizations as the International Monetary Fund. In contrast, the G-8 never has had a follow-up mechanism.

When asked if this should be the last G-8 and its mission formally handed over to the G-20, some diplomats from G-8 nations respond with various rationales for its continued existence. Among them, the G-8 provides “strategic thinking” about major political and economic issues. Another is that it offers a uniquely intimate gathering space for key leaders that no other global forum can provide. Even the G-20 can be cumbersome, these diplomats argue.

The consensus or conventional wisdom is that L’Aquila will not mean “arrivederci” for the G-8: It will carry on in some fashion, especially to take on political issues such as North Korea, Iran and nuclear proliferation that would be out of bounds for any other forum.

If presidents and prime ministers actually enjoy these meetings, as some diplomats assert, they will likely keep attending, even if the surrounding commentary questions their continued existence and importance.

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