Born in the 1970s from economic and geopolitical crisis, the G-8 summits of the world's most powerful nations remain focused on managing the western world's over-arching political and economic challenges while quietly cultivating the spread of democracy.
The first summit -- in November 1975 in Rambouillet, France, before either Canada or Russia were members of the exclusive club -- was ostensibly held to discuss the then-troubled international monetary system. It was actually the result of a series of historic forces coming together.
One was a series of severe shocks to the international economy -- including the demise of fixed currency-exchange rates and the 1973 Arab oil embargo. There was also growing unease about accidental war in Europe.
The other force, and perhaps a more important driver, was the need to address the growing threat to the West of communism. The movement was increasingly popular in Europe and elsewhere and for the G-8 culminated in communists becoming part of the French government in the early 1980s.
"This was a confluence of history, two parallel streams coming together," says John Kirton, Canada's foremost G-8 expert and director of the University of Toronto Centre for G-8 Research.
While the stated intention of the "World Economic Summit" at Rambouillet was to focus on a new monetary system of managed floating exchange rates, quicken the pace of trade liberalization and sort out energy challenges, the communique that emerged focused on democracy and politics.
"We came together because of shared beliefs and shared responsibilities. We are each responsible for the government of an open, democratic society, dedicated to individual liberty and social advancement," the leaders said.
"Our success will strengthen, indeed is essential to democratic societies everywhere."
Kirton argues the powerlessness of the U.S.-European alliance to deal with international challenges compelled then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to envision and create a new international order.
It was also an evolution of what was known informally as the G-5, a meeting of finance ministers from the U.K., France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. which the French wanted to elevate. They would do so with a meeting of the heads of state -- which France invited and, oddly, included Italy.
"Other countries started to get their elbows up. France appeared to be designing something of global stature that was overwhelmingly European. The non-Europeans were upset," recalls Ivan Head, director of the University of British Columbia's Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues, then senior adviser to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
The idea was based on the Concert of Europe which emerged from the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna whereby Europe's then big powers -- Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia and eventually France -- agreed to preserve peace through concerted diplomatic action. It was the very subject on which Kissinger had written a doctoral thesis.
"He knew what concerts were all about, he knew they worked, he knew how they worked, so that was his dominant concept," says Kirton.
The first summit was primarily organized by Valery Giscard d'Estaing of France and Helmut Schmidt of Germany -- both former finance ministers -- and was a continuation of a series of informal meetings held in the White House Library. Kissinger pressed for annual gatherings.
"The management of a balance of power is a permanent undertaking," Kissinger wrote later in The White House Years.
He also knew as host of the next summit, less-pretentiously titled the Western Economic Summit and held in Puerto Rico, the U.S would control the agenda -- and the guest list.
"They would include in the group the people . . . Kissinger knew he needed if this was going to guarantee security to democratic policies in the world, including the United States," says Kirton, who has studied the summit phenomenon for
"Raw power was what Henry Kissinger did."
It was then Canada joined, an inclusion Kirton argues was due essentially to economic power -- particularly in areas such as oil, nickel, cobalt and uranium, and food.
In an era characterized by growing power of commodity cartels such as the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries, having Canada on side was essential.
"We had raw power, it was make or break kind of power, and Kissinger knew it. He knew concerts had to include all of the world's major powers and that we were a major power," says Kirton.
"Kissinger always thought it those kinds of geopolitical formulations," says Head, who recalls France's opposition to Canada's inclusion after some adroit behind-the-scenes diplomatic maneuvering by Ottawa.
"France complained, and Helmut Schmidt said: 'If Canada's not there, I'm not coming.' "
Canadians argued that with a larger economy than Italy -- primarily due to energy output -- Canada should be a member, particularly at an economic summit.
Canada also helped counter the Eurocentic leanings of the group and contain France's geopolitical aspirations, which were a sensitive topic for Canadians after Charles de Gaulle's public embracing of Quebec separatism.
"From the Canadian point of view, we were kind of on guard constantly in those days because of (France's) Gaullist policies," says Head.
Since becoming a member, Canada has been active in continuing to shift the summit's raison d'etre from its economic roots toward human rights and geopolitics. Trudeau, for instance, campaigned for nuclear non-proliferation in 1977.
"We played a role in the world that the United States could not. We could bring to the table perspectives that people would share with us that they would not share with the United States. We're not feared," says Head.
Nuclear power was then under the aegis of the UN Security Council's permanent members, the U.S., the U.K., France, the Soviet Union and China, known as the P5.
"If you're Canada, if you're Japan, Germany, Italy, frozen out forever from the P5, the first thing you want to do is to transform this ostensibly economic body into a political forum," says Kirton.
That trend reached an apex at the summit in Cologne in 1999 when the group's influence was behind the decision to use ground forces to liberate an embattled Kosovo.
Along the way, the
G-8 played a leading role in arguably the world's most important political shift in the last 50 years, the emergence of a democratic Russia.
The roots of that change came in Paris in 1989, when Soviet president Gorbachev sent the then G-7 a letter asking to become part of the club. Eight years later, Gorbachev's wishes and Kissinger's long-term strategy reached fruition with the Summit of the Eight in Denver.
Also at the 1989 summit a group of Third World leaders was invited to start discussions on a new North-South global economic relationship.
That aim is finally expected to have partial but concrete success at Kananaskis, largely because of the inclusion of African democratization into the equation under the New Partnership for African Development championed by Prime Minster Jean Chretien.
"When (the G-8) decide to change things for Africa it will have a very significant effect," says Chretien's G-8 representative, Robert Fowler.
"The principal deliverable outcome of the summit, I expect, will be the establishment of a very different, new, long-term partnership with Africa."
The 26 summits have dealt with a broad range of global issues including disease, poverty, energy, human rights, technology, security, and trade -- all aimed at cultivating stability and democracy.
"The G-7/G-8 has emerged as the effective centre of global governance and consequential centre of domestic governance," says Kirton.
"They've got so much power they can create incentives."
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