Order Code RS22403
Updated March 29, 2007
The Group of Eight Summits:
Evolution and Possible Reform
Martin A. Weiss
Analyst in International Trade and Finance
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade
The Group of Eight (G8) summit is a forum to informally discuss and create
policies on major foreign policy issues among the heads of state of the United States,
France, Germany, Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Russia. The 2007
summit will be hosted by Germany and is scheduled to take place in Heilegendamm on
June 6-8, 2007. This report discusses the evolution of the G8 and possible reform as
background for the meeting. This report will be updated as events warrant.
The Group of Eight (G8) is a heads of state forum of the major industrialized
democracies to informally discuss and create policies on major foreign policy issues. It
was established following a 1975 conference among the leaders of France, Germany,
Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, in Rambouillet, France. Canada
was added at the second meeting, held in Puerto Rico in 1976. In 1997, Russia was added
to the forum. During 2007, Germany holds the G8 presidency and will host the G8 heads
of state summit in Heilegendamm, Germany on June 6-8, 2007.1
At the annual G8 meetings, heads of state seek to reach agreement on various policy
initiatives, which they can then implement both unilaterally and through international
institutions. Unlike these institutions, the G8 has no standing bureaucracy, staff, or
infrastructure (according to one British diplomat, “it hasn’t got either a cafeteria or
pension plan”).2 Nevertheless, the G8, and the system of international summitry that has
sprung up around it, have helped address several major international security and
economic concerns over the past 30 years.
This report will use the designation “G8” to refer to the heads of state summits. After Russia
was added to the group in 1997, they were invited to participate in all meetings except finance
ministerial meetings. “G7” refers to meetings of finance ministers.
Penttila, Risto E. J., “The Role of the G8 in International Peace and Security,” Adelphi Papers,
vol. 355, May 2003, p. 1.
In its current incarnation, one analyst discerns three main goals of the G8 summits:
(1) Exercise political leadership by launching new ideas and resolving problems that
cannot be settled at lower levels; (2) Reconcile the international and domestic pressures
on policy-making generated by growing economic interdependence; and (3) Promote
collective management between Europe, North America, and Japan on issues of global
political and economic governance.3 Left out of this agenda are the developing countries.
Developing countries, such as China, are growing rapidly and are increasingly relevant
to the global economy and international security. The future role of the G8 may likely be
determined by how it decides to engage the developing world.
There is a wide range of views on the G8. To critics of the G8, its meetings
represent an expensive photo opportunity for the presidents and prime ministers of the
wealthiest nations. The July 2000 summit in Okinawa, Japan, was deemed a success by
G8 members, “based largely on the lack of controversy and the sheaf of joint
communiques worked out in advance by their staffs.”4 An informal group, the G8 has no
actual international enforcement power, no formal crisis management capacity, no longterm policy making capacity, limited continuity, and weak capacity to implement many
of its prior commitments. G8 critics contend that other institutions, such as the United
Nations and the international financial institutions, where developing countries have more
influence, may thus be better suited for addressing international problems.
Others see the G8 emerging alongside the United Nations as a separate facility for
global governance. With a flexibility borne out of no given mandate, agenda, or
bureaucratic infrastructure, the members of the G8 can act very quickly and decisively
when its members are in agreement. G8 members are often the largest shareholders or
financial contributors of the more formal international institutions. Through informal
dialogue at the G8 meetings, these countries can often set the agenda and priorities of the
other institutions. On several issues including debt relief for the poorest countries, conflict
in the former Yugoslavia, and curbing international terrorist financing, the G8 has been
able to effectively coordinate international action.
Over the past 30 years, an elaborate G8 system has been established. At the apex
is the leaders’ summit, typically held in the summer and hosted by one of the G8 member
countries. The G8 presidency rotates annually and follows the following cycle: France,
United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada. The G8
president sets the agenda and determines if nonmember countries and stakeholders (such
as nongovernmental organizations) are invited to the summit.
In addition to its annual heads of state summit, the G8 has widespread meetings at
the ministerial level. The G8 has developed a network of supporting ministerial meetings,
which allow ministers to meet regularly throughout the year in order to continue the work
set out at each summit. These include meetings of finance ministers, foreign ministers,
and environment ministers, among others. G8 ministers and officials also meet on an ad
Nicholas Bayne, “Prospects for the 2005 G8 Gleneagles Summit,” available at
Doug Strick, “U.S. Weighs North Korea Offer,” Washington Post, July 23, 2000.
hoc basis to deal with pressing issues, such as terrorism, energy, and development. From
time to time, the leaders also create task forces or working groups to focus intensively on
specific issues of concern, such as drug-related money laundering, nuclear safety, and
transnational organized crime. A final layer is the leaders’ personal representatives
known as the G8 “sherpas” or guides. The G8 sherpas meet in the run-up to the summit
to prepare the summit agenda and documents. Following the summit, the sherpas meet
to review progress on previous G8 initiatives.
The principal document of each summit is the communiqué, or since 2002, the
chair’s summary. The content of the document is determined by the host country. One
commentator has remarked that “[t]he communiqué has grown into a long, unwieldy
‘Christmas tree’ with each country adding its cherished special interest ‘ornament’.”5 In
recent years, the chair’s summary has been supplemented by various action plans,
declarations, and statements.
G8 members have a large amount of economic and political power individually and
can bring that power to bear to advocate for G8 initiatives at the more formal international
institutions. In many cases when G8 priorities aligned, G8 members have demonstrated
an ability to wield their significant economic and political clout to policy shifts at
multilateral institutions following agreement among the G8 principals. Two examples
are reform of the international financial system, which first emerged during G8 finance
minister meetings in 2000, and the introduction of 100% multilateral debt relief for the
poorest and most indebted countries, which emerged from the 2005 G8 summit in
Gleneagles, Scotland.6 On other issues, such as climate change and energy security,
where G8 priorities diverge, progress has been more limited. Germany’s 2007 G8 agenda
reflects an expressed interest in returning to the roots of the G8 summits by placing
economic issues at the core of the summit. The focus of the forthcoming July meetings
is expected to be threefold: (1) the stability of the international economy — including
issues such as free trade, protectionism, employment, and global imbalances; (2) Africa
— good governance, sustainable investment, peace and security; and (3) cooperation with
emerging economies and increasing their involvement in the G8 process.7
Evolution of the Membership
The first summit was held in Rambouillet, France, on November 15-17, 1975, and
included the six “major industrialized democracies”: the United States, France, Germany,
Italy, the United Kingdom, and Japan. According to the 1975 Rambouillet communique:
“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 communique continued to state the purpose of the
William E. Whyman, “We Can’t Go On Meeting Like This: Revitalizing the G-7 Process,” The
Washington Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 3 (Summer 1995), pp. 139-165.
See CRS Report RL33073, Debt Relief for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries: Issues for
Congress, and CRS Report RS22534, The Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative, both by Martin A.
The official website for the German 2007 G8 summit is [http://www.g-8.de/Webs/G8/EN/
newfound group: “to assure in a world of growing interdependence ... closer international
cooperation and constructive dialogue among all countries, transcending differences in
stages of economic development, degrees of resource endowment and political and social
systems.”8 The first summit focused on discussing responses to several international
economic crises of the early 1970s, primarily the 1971 collapse of the Bretton Woods
financial system, as well as the 1973 Yom Kippur war and the ensuing oil shock. U.S.
President Gerald Ford decided to host a second conference in Puerto Rico in June 1976
and invited Canada to the meetings. This brought an additional North American country
into a Europe-heavy forum. Since 1977, the European Union participates at the G8
summit and is represented by the President of the European Commission and the leader
of the country that holds the Presidency of the European Union.9
The Addition of Russia to the G7. Russia, the most recent member, joined in
1997. The addition of Russia to the G8 marked the pinnacle of the transition of the G8
from an institution focused on economic issues to one with political issues at its core.
Many analysts agree that Russia was added to the G8 in exchange for its cooperation on
three pressing issues: (1) Eastern European entry into NATO, (2) terrorism, and (3)
nuclear proliferation. In exchange for being allowed to join the G7, Russia subsequently
relaxed its long-stated opposition towards Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic
Russia’s hosting of the G8 summit in 2006 raised some concern among Members of
Congress. Legislation was introduced in the 109th Congress, expressing the sense of
Congress that Russia’s continued participation in the Group of Eight nations should be
conditioned on the Russian government voluntarily accepting and adhering to “the norms
and standards of democracy (H.Con.Res. 143 and S.Con.Res. 14).” The House resolution
was referred to the House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Europe
and Emerging Threats and the Senate resolution was referred to the Senate Foreign
Relations Committee. No further action was taken on either piece of legislation.
Including Russia in the G8 has also raised questions regarding the nature of the G8
as a forum, and how Russia fits into it. To what extent is Russia an “open, democratic
society, dedicated to individual liberty and social advancement?” Since the G8 has its
origins as a group of the largest (democratic) economies, what role should level of
development have in determining membership? These questions have yet to be fully
addressed by G8 policy makers, but their answers will be crucial to the future of the G8.
The fact that there is no formal G8 charter or membership criteria complicates the issue.
Table 1 presents the gross domestic products of G8 members and several large
developing economies. Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) countries, the GDPs of Spain ($1,124 billion), Korea ($800 billion), and Brazil
($789 billion) are larger than Russia’s $772 billion.
1975 Rambouillet G8 Communique, available at [http://www.g7.utoronto.ca/summit/
Although the EU has become a full participant in the G8 summit process, it does not chair or
host a summit. Thus “G8” only refers to its sovereign country members.
Penttila, Risto E. J., “The Role of the G8 in International Peace and Security,” Adelphi Papers,
vol. 355, May 2003, p. 43.
Table 1. 2005 Total GDP of G8 and Other Major Economies
(in billions of U.S. dollars)
Source: International Monetary Fund
The G8 and China. China is a major growing economy and crucially important
to global economic and political stability. In one fashion or another, the G8 will likely
be required to engage China. Like the inclusion of Russia, how the G8 engages China
could dramatically alter the role of the institution. China participated on a consultative
basis with the G7 finance ministers, for the first time, at the October 1-3, 2004. Outside
of the G8, China has been very active in the G20 group of finance ministers and held the
G20 presidency for 2005. Like the G7 finance ministers meetings, the G20 is an informal
forum for finance ministers from the industrial and emerging market countries to seek
consensus on international financial and economic matters.11
Some observers argue that introducing China to the G7 finance ministers, albeit
initially only as a participant, may be an effective first step toward eventual G8 (G9)
membership. Bringing China into the G8, as bringing in Russia, would create trade-offs
for the forum. China is not a democracy, has human rights concerns, and is often not likeminded with G8 members on international economic or security policies (although there
are often divisions among G8 members). This may make decision-making increasingly
difficult. On the other hand, allowing China to participate in the G8 may create an
important informal forum for industrialized democracies to discuss issues with China and
help resolve disputes away from more formal institutions like the United Nations or
through highly visible state visits.
The Future of the G8
G8 experience with Russia and China points toward two possible options for the G8:
(1) Continue to function as an informal forum for industrially developed nations to seek
The G20 is composed of 10 industrial countries (the G-7 countries plus Australia, Russia, and
the EU president) and 10 emerging market economies (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia,
Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey). More information is available at
consensus on policy priorities and collectively pursue them; or (2) Slowly expand to
include major developing countries, and through the informal “G8 Plus” meetings try to
reach consensus among industrial and developing nations on international policy
During its presidency, it appears that Germany is gradually pursuing the latter option.
Germany wants to create permanent seats — albeit short of full membership — for China
and other emerging countries at G8 summit meetings.12 The United Kingdom had
supported a proposal that would have extended full membership to China, India, Brazil,
South Africa, and Mexico, but this was rejected by German Chancellor Angela Merkel,
reportedly due to concerns that an expanded membership of the G8 would make
discussion impossible, reflecting concerns she has had during discussions at European
summits among the 25 members of the European Union.13
The G8’s current members are often the major shareholders of the international
institutions and can use their influence to push policies put forth at the G8 summits.
When members agree as they did on international financial institution reform and the
HIPC initiative, there are institutional and procedural means to carry out decisions.
However, when they disagree — as they have on environment or agriculture issues —
there is little likelihood that the majority view will be pushed through international
agencies over the resistance of the minority G8 voices. Disagreement stands to increase
if the G8 expands to include countries such as China that are often at odds with individual
G8 members. Expansion may also undermine the original purpose and flexibility of the
group. Nevertheless, some analysts have proposed expanding the G8. David Owen, a
former British foreign secretary, advocates adding India in 2007 and bringing in China
and Brazil shortly thereafter.14 At the 2006 St. Petersburg summit, British Prime Minister
Tony Blair suggested that the G8 expand to become the G13, by incorporating Brazil,
China, India, South Africa, and Mexico. Colin Bradford and Johannes Linn, analysts at
the Brookings Institution, have called for elevating the G20 finance ministers to the leader
Regardless of whether the G8 formally expands to include major developing
countries, or coordinates with them at the margins of other meetings, the cooperation of
the developing countries is important for advancing many of the issues that the G8 is
currently undertaking. Although the G8 may be helpful in securing international
agreements on some issues of concern to the developed countries alone (such as financial
regulation among OECD countries), successfully addressing most international concerns
(on issues such as international development, security, or climate change) would require
the full participation of the developing countries themselves.
Hugh Williamson, “Berlin Presses for emerging nations’ role at G8 summits,” Financial Times,
January 25, 2007.
Bertrand Benoit and Mark Schieritz, “Germany Plans to Shake Up G8 Agenda,” Financial
Times, July 27, 2006.
David Owen, “G8 to G9: a formula for democracy,” The Times, March 2, 2006.
Colin I. Bradford, Jr. and Johannes F. Linn, “Global Economic Governance at a Crossroads:
Replacing the G-7 with the G-20,” Brookings Institution Policy Brief 131, April, 2004.