News of G8's demise greatly exaggerated

Speculation that the G8 is on its way out, doomed to be replaced by the newfangled G20, was dismissed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his closing news conference from the smaller, old-school summit earlier today from Huntsville, Ont.

The theory (as mentioned here, for example) is that the G20, with fast-rising economies like China and Brazil in its ranks, is bound to eclipse the fusty old club of only European, North American and Japanese leaders. The G20’s impressive start in orchestrating a global reaction to the economic crisis of 2008/09 bolsters the case that it is the leaders’ forum of the future.

Harper was having none of it, though. “The G20 has done a magnificent job in the year and a half that it’s been around and it has been tackling the economic crisis,” he said. “But there are quite frankly limits to what you can discuss and what you can achieve in a group of twenty, and of course there’s always other participants as well.”

He went on: “And beyond the economy, there’s much less commonality of purpose than you have at the G8. So I think all the leaders at this point would be pretty strong in their view, based on the discussion we had last night, that the G8 is a pretty essential organization going forward.”

The conventional wisdom has been that the G20 would take on economic and financial matters, while the G8, if it survives at all,  will be relegated to security and development issues. Even on the economy, though, I thought Harper hinted that the G8 retains a surprisingly key role, if less important than it was before the G20’s creation.

He spoke forcefully about the assembled leaders’ worries about another “cataclysmic event,” along the lines of the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank, that might spark a wider economic conflagration. “We can’t afford some particular even that would cause a series of cascading events and a downward spiral of confidence in the global markets.”

But then he shifted gears from the fearful prospect of a short-term problem turning nasty to the G20’s less immediate preoccupations. “The G20 is an opportunity for us to take a somewhat longer time-horizon,” Harper said, ” in this case we’re talking about a mid-term, three to five year, horizon.”

So maybe, along with its security and aid preoccupations, the G8 will remain a forum for occasional action on a rapidly unfolding economic worry, while the G20 evolves into the body where medium- and longer-term coordination is hammered out. Nobody really knows. For all the careful orchestration around these summits, the two leaders’ groups remain works in progress.