The Group of Eight is an ultra-exclusive club that every leader in the world would like to join. The club has no regular staff, no headquarters, and no budget. But membership does have its privileges: namely, a seat at the table where eight of the richest and most powerful nations address worldwide economic and political issues.
G6, G7, G8 . . . G9?
There weren't always eight members. At the club's first official meeting, in 1975, there were only six: the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Italy, Germany, and France. French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing invited the leaders of the other five "G6" countries to a meeting just outside Paris. The meeting focused mainly on economic issues, including the 1970s oil crisis.
The economic focus was no accident. In many ways, the new G6 club continued the work of the "Library Group," a sort of informal, international committee of senior financial officials from the major industrialized democracies. First convened at the behest of the United States in 1973 to address emerging issues for international capitalism, the Library Group basically became the G6 when heads of state started crashing the finance ministers' parties.
The G6 became the G7 when Canada got invited to the party in 1976. The following year, the European Union became an official observer, though not an actual club member. The G7 didn't become the G8 until Russia joined in 1998, after a six-year courtship. Other leaders often get invitations to the party, but none has a seat at the members-only table, not even the ones with developing market economies and more than a billion people each (sorry, India and China).
As with any gathering of high-ranking executives, someone else has to do most of the actual work. In the case of the G8 (as in the case of K2), the heavy lifting falls mainly to "sherpas." Named for the Nepalese guides who show Western climbers how to summit Himalayan peaks, G8 sherpas (one per nation) meet four or five times a year, hammering out the agenda and overseeing the implementation of agreements.
Heads of state now frequently show up for the G8's annual summit with full entourages in tow, but, other than translators, only the sherpas are allowed at the closed-door meetings that count most. Since no video or audio recordings of the meeting are made, the sherpas' notes provide the only record of what gets said.
If a leader needs a pertinent piece of information during the meeting, he can slip a note to his sherpa, generally seated somewhere behind him, who can answer by slipping another note back. If the sherpa doesn't know the answer offhand, he can quietly slip out and pass the question on to one of his "sous-sherpas" (two per nation), who wait patiently outside.
Experts disagree about the importance of the G8. According to John Kirton, director of the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto, "the G8 summit and supporting system have developed into the center of global governance, operating effectively, if largely invisibly, every day of the year." Others disagree, dismissing the G8 as a "ginger group," incapable of dealing with the real economic and political issues facing the world.
In either case, G8 membership is an enviable distinction. After all, according to the World Bank, the G8 nations had a combined GDP of more than $26 trillion in 2004. In fact, together, the G8 countries account for nearly two-thirds of the world's total economic output. Here's how the World Bank ranked the world's top 15 economies for 2004, as measured by GDP in U.S. dollars. The G8 countries are in italics.
Country: GDP (in trillions of U.S. dollars)
United States: 11.67 Japan: 4.62 Germany: 2.71 United Kingdom: 2.14 France: 2.00 Italy: 1.67 China: 1.65 Spain: 0.99 Canada: 0.98 India: 0.69 South Korea: 0.68 Mexico: 0.68 Australia: 0.63 Brazil: 0.60 Russia: 0.58
Steve Sampson, July 6, 2005, Knowledgenews, reprinted by permission.