The recycling of the G8: ghosts at the table

Noriko Hama
11 July 2008

A bad workman blames his tools. Incompetent summiteers blame people who are not there. Indeed, the all-too-familiar lines of the American writer Hughes Mearns might have been written for the G8 members who gathered for the summit in Toyako, Japan on 7-9 July 2008:

"As I was walking up the stair

I met a man who wasn't there

He wasn't there again today

I wish, I wish he'd stay away".

The problem is that the people who weren't there just would not stay away. Whatever the G8 members talked about - be it carbon-emissions, oil prices or the food crisis - it would be the people who weren't there that dominated the discussions. However hard the summiteers wished they'd stay away, the spectre of the non-present would loom large over everything. Also in openDemocracy on the G8 summit of 2008:

Simon Maxwell,
"Development in a downturn"
(4 July 2008)

Ann Pettifor,
"The G8 in a global mess: 1920s and 1980s lessons"
(7 July 2008)

Just so that the people who weren't there could be kept in their place, the Toyako summit spent a lot of time pretending it was not a "Group of Eight" summit at all. Much effort went into setting up officially unofficial but perhaps unofficially official meetings with non-members who could not be kept away. Having seen the way things went, opinions are rampant that the G8 has outlived its usefulness. Many call for its expansion to bring in all kinds of new faces.

Such suggestions have a point. Clearly the G8 as it stands now cannot be expected single-handedly to make the global world go round. But was it ever meant to? When the whole thing started out in 1975 as the G6, the emphasis was on a meeting of minds and the sharing of objectives. Yet somewhere along the line, people started to talk the language of diplomatic give and take, of losing some and gaining some, of who gets what from whom at what price. All this was supposed to be precisely the thing that the summits were originally meant to avoid. Freed from the pressures of intrigue and compromise, the summiteers were supposed to be able to speak minds and pool wisdom. Bringing in new members is not a bad idea, but under the current dispensation more participants can only increase the risk of collective irresponsibility.

The absent excuse

In fact, the 2008 gathering was in principle a golden opportunity to give the G8 a new lease of life - precisely because the economic situation the world faces is such a critically difficult one. To be sure, the environment of half a century away is important. It makes perfect sense to talk about it before it is too late. That said, there were clearly more pressing economic issues that demanded immediate attention: oil prices, food insecurity, the financial markets and poverty, to mention only a few. True, these topics were on the agenda in some form. But they were given only the most cursory of attention. It was almost as though the G8 nations deliberately turned their backs on these problems from awareness of their impotence in tackling them without the involvement of those others who weren't there. Noriko Hama is professor at Doshisha Business School. She writes regularly and commentates frequently in leading journals (Mainichi Shimbun, Japan Times, Financial Times) and broadcasting media (NHK, BBC, CNN). Her publications include (as co-author) Can the Dollar Recover? (1992) and (as contributor) The Japanese Economy in Synopsis (2005)

Also by Noriko Hama in openDemocracy:

"Koizumi after Koizumi: Japan's changing pains"
(12 September 2005)

"How not to build an East Asian Community"
(9 December 2005)

"Shinzo Abe: riding high on ambiguity"
(18 October 2006)

"The China-Japan spring romance: thus far, how much farther?"
(17 April 2007)

"Shinzo Abe: out of time"
(24 August 2007)

Yet this psychology is totally wrong. It comes of thinking of the G8 summits as places for negotiation where deals have to be made. That is not the case. The summits should be regarded as occasions in which the integrity, the intellect, the honesty and indeed the humility of the most mature and most privileged nations of the world are routinely and severely tested. All this, and with the whole world watching. With report-cards on hand. In this sense, those who make a fuss about the people who are not there are not really there themselves, for they use others' absence as a pretext to evade their own responsibilities in the here-and-now. As the meeting's host on this occasion, Japan's prime minister Yasuo Fukuda ought to have told his colleagues - and President George W Bush in particular - that they were the ones who should stay away if they were incapable of turning from the ghosts at the table to the tasks in hand.

Indeed, all the circumstances of the G8 event in Japan's northern island of Hokkaido - the occasion itself, its location, even the personality of the host - were actually ideal for breathing new life into the summit meeting. If only the right approach had been made to bring out those advantages! In terms of the place, Japan is one of the countries in which the pain inflicted on everyday citizens by global competition is most radically manifest. The pain is all the more acute because Japan had for so long been so unused to disparities, inequalities and poverty. The regions (Hokkaido among them) are hurting because locally based small businesses are losing out. Many people are becoming the "working poor" because Japanese employers are no longer the paternalistic employee loyalists that they once were. If this summit had been held, not amid those lavish facilities at Toyako, but in a provincial town where all the local shops have closed down, or in an internet café where the so-called "net-café refugees" of no job and no fixed abode take shelter these days, that would have surely brought out more inspired discussions from the summiteers concerning the nature of globalisation.

The butler didn't do it

As for the host himself, the Japanese have always had the perfect name for him. That name is banto - which would translate as something between a butler and a chief clerk. Ever loyal, ever self-effacing, supremely professional and one who always makes the seemingly impossible possible, in a quiet, unobtrusive but determined way. Those qualities of his were very much to the fore while Yasuo Fukuda was serving as chief cabinet secretary under prime minister Junichiro Koizumi.

That kind of banto-diplomacy would serve the world well at this moment when the global jungle is driving everyone towards aggressive and exclusionist survival tactics. Alas, he seems to have lost his touch since he assumed the premiership in September 2007 after the resignation of Shinzo Abe (Koizumi's own ineffectual successor). Rather than the environmental visionary that he seems to have aspired to be, he ought to have returned to his banto roots in preparing for the Toyako summit. A bit of well-thought-out cajoling and scolding would have served the summiteers well in recalling what summit meetings were - and should again be - all about. Recycling the summit back to life would have been an ideal job for Fukuda. A thousand pities for the world that he did not rise to the occasion.


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