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G8 summit: a global displacement activity

Western governments’ desire to globalise big issues - from poverty to climate change - is an attempt to escape real responsibility for policymaking.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

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This year’s Group of Eight (G8) gathering in Toyako, Japan, has broadly been seen as a ‘back to the 1970s’ international summit, its agenda dominated by the threat of economic stagnation and rising commodity prices in the West. The centrality of these issues is said to undermine promises to address climate change and world poverty (1). The comparisons with the 1970s starkly reveal how much has changed in both international and domestic politics, while underlying economic problems appear to have remained much the same.

The G8, made up of seven of the world’s leading industrialised nations, plus Russia, was set up as a forum for economic and trade matters. Its roots lie in the oil crisis and global economic recession of the early 1970s. But since then, G8 summits have deliberated on a range of political issues – from global security and conflict resolution in the Middle East to Third World development and climate change.

UK prime minister Gordon Brown has dismissed the comparison of this year’s G8 summit to the 1970s agenda. He was quick to point out that gatherings of world leaders play a very different role today. He argued that in the 1970s, ‘many of the problems we faced were national, not global. The problems we have today are global and they require global solutions.’ (2)

It is worth highlighting what has changed today with regard to policy responses to similar issues dealt with in the 1970s – from rapid oil price rises to the failures of international development policies. What does it mean to describe problems and their solutions as ‘national’ versus ‘global’?

Surely, there was as much understanding of the interconnected nature of the global economy in the 1970s as there is today? After all, it was the 1973 Yom Kippur War that was widely seen as triggering the steep rise in oil prices, and policy responses to this ‘global’ crisis recognised the need for international coordination and discussion. This was the reason why the original G6 was established in 1974 as a US initiative to bring financial advisers together, and then formalised the following year by the French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing at the level of heads of state.

The difference between a ‘global’ and a ‘national’ problem has little to do with an understanding of global interconnectedness itself. The difference lies in perceptions of the role and capacity of government rather than in an understanding of the nature of the problem being confronted. A ‘national’ problem implies an understanding of a solution or a policy action at the level of national government. In the 1970s, the heads of state gathered at the G6 and, after Canada’s admittance, G7 summits saw themselves as having the responsibility to address problems, even if those problems’ causes were out of their immediate control. Taking policy responsibility implied ‘nationalising’ a response to a global problem.

Today, the opposite process is in play. Although ‘globalising’ a problem sounds as if it is being given a greater sense of urgency and immediacy, it essentially is a form of distancing. ‘Global’ problems cannot be addressed or solved by governments. Once a problem is ascribed ‘global’ status, the role of government is reduced from actor to advocate. The responsibility for addressing the problem is passed on. Gordon Brown’s position that current economic difficulties should be understood as global economic problems, and addressed through a global framework, effectively distances government from responsibility for policymaking.

This process of distancing can be clearly seen in the policies which Gordon Brown advocates for the Toyako G8 summit: reducing dependency on fossil fuels and boosting food production in developing countries. Neither involves the British government in decisive policymaking. Both are long-term policy-perspectives, which rely on a host of other actors and which take a substantial time to have much impact.

This process of distancing from responsibility can also be seen in the UK government’s view that the British people should do more to combat global food shortages through cutting back on their own food waste (3). Through reformulating problems in global terms, governments distance themselves from policy responsibility, passing the buck to other policy actors both internationally and domestically, increasingly making politics a matter either of technical global governance or of individual consumption choices.

In this way, governments invert the traditional relationship between themselves and society. Rather than individuals appealing to government to act, today it is more likely that governing elites will take on the advocacy role – appealing for individuals, or for their society, to act responsibly. The more a problem is seen to be a global question, the more governments tend to suggest that action is more effective at the level of individual lifestyles or individual awareness. Global economic or environmental problems are more likely to be seen as matters which individuals need to take responsibility for – through more ‘responsible’ consumption – than issues which governments can directly influence.

The redescription of problems and solutions in global terms also inverts the relationship between governments and international institutions. Governments which refuse to distance themselves from the capacity to address policy questions, in fact, become problematised. The EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson, a former UK New Labour cabinet minister, has echoed Brown’s approach to the G8 summit, stating that governments that seek to take responsibility for economic policymaking risk a return to the dark days of the 1970s ‘zero-sum’ politics (4).

The G8 summit highlights the nature of the shift from national to global understandings of policymaking. The desire to keep climate change and world poverty at the top of the policy agenda, regardless of what happens to the global economy, demonstrates how institutionalised the drive to escape policy responsibilities has become. Brown and Mandelson, in fact, claim the moral high ground in criticising ‘1970s’ approaches in which governments took responsibility for problem-solving. The approach of ‘global problems and global solutions’ highlights the dearth of serious policy discussion at both the international and the domestic level today.

David Chandler is Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. Visit his website here.

(1) It’s back to the 1970s as economy grabs limelight, Guardian, 5 July 2008

(2) Brown: West must not give up on aid and climate change, Guardian, 5 July 2008

(3) UK is wasting far too much food – Brown, Guardian, 7 July 2008.

(4) Free trade is our only way forward, Sunday Telegraph, 6 July 2008

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Topics Politics

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