Foreign Policy

Seven Questions: Behind the Curtain at the G8

Editor's Note: In an interview by Foriegn Policy magazine, Lael Brainard, vice president and director of global economy and development, guides us through the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, explaining what really goes on behind the scenes and what to expect.

Foreign Policy (FP): Last year, Germany hosted the G8 summit, and this year, it’s being held in Japan. Does it make a difference which country is hosting? Does that play a big part in setting the agenda, or are there similar things that come up every year?

Lael Brainard (LB): It does matter. Individual leaders will decide if a certain topic is the make-or-break topic for them, possibly because they had domestic political support for it.

There was a year when the French put water on their agenda because they thought this was a really important issue. It was a big priority item for the French but it wasn’t yet mirrored by other countries. There is some ability for the host country to do some agenda-setting but the reality is that tough issues will crowd the agenda whether you like them or not. And this year is all about tough issues, all about realities.

FP: There appears to be some things that are leaking out beforehand this year. How much of the G-8 summit is worked out in advance?

LB: The communiqué itself, which is the document that reflects the agreement, is something that is worked on for some weeks, and sometimes months, prior to the summit. But it usually also contains what you would refer to as “bracketed text”—things that are not agreed up until the very last moment. And sometimes those are things that are worked out at the summits themselves.

I remember the leader of another G-8 country coming up to me when I was the sherpa for the U.S. and literally negotiating text with me. That was pretty unusual. But the leaders can get into the actual text themselves when there is strong disagreement over something.

Other things tend to reappear year after year. This is boilerplate language that has been agreed to in years past, but there’s inevitably one country that doesn’t want to take it any farther. And so inevitably it just gets repeated, because that’s the best anybody can do.

FP: Many analysts say the G-8 no longer adequately reflects the global power structure. How long will it be before you can bring rising economies such as China, India, and Brazil to the table and away from the sidelines?

LB: I think that the Japanese could do it in three days if they wanted to. But they don’t. They are very resistant to it. I would hope that sometime between this year and the time the new American president has a chance to host [2012], that there is a G13 or something along those lines.

FP: Is this feasible? Will that making reaching other agreements more difficult?

LB: Absolutely. But it’s essential to make resolution more meaningful. You cannot have a meaningful resolution on climate without having India and China at the table. You can’t have a meaningful resolution on issues associated with energy and food price increases if you don’t have Brazil, and again India, China and other major rising economies at the table. Here we are, we’ve got probably the most significant set of economic challenges that we’ve had facing the leading economies, probably since the 1970s, and yet this time around the (now) G-8 is not the right group to solve these problems.

FP: It seems there’s a sense of a leadership vacuum in the G-8. President Bush is a lame duck; other prime ministers are unpopular at home. So, is French President Nicolas Sarkozy the only one, as he assumes the EU presidency, who matters right now?

LB: Well, it is very tough in a year like this year when you have not only a lame duck president but an unpopular lame duck president. And you have the political fortunes of several of the other leaders up in the air. It does raise questions as to what extent, first of all, they’re going to be willing to take some risks. And second, even if they do, whether they can take them forward.

In terms of where the attention be focused, certainly Sarkozy always has great interest from the press. And so now he has a dual hat, which makes him doubly interesting. But I think [Dmitry] Medvedev will also be very interesting, because this will be his entré onto the world stage [as Russia’s president].

FP: Speaking of the leaders, how much goes on behind the scenes between them that people wouldn’t expect? How do they interact when the cameras are gone and the microphones are off?

LB: That is very individual to the personalities involved. A big part of the importance of these summits is that personal chemistry between the leaders and the opportunity for leaders to forge ongoing informal relationships. Although they may meet in this environment only once a year, they have the capacity to pick up the phone with one another at any point throughout the year. So I do think that the G-8 has that potential to bolster a set of personal relationships among the leaders of these important economies.

FP: Do you think there may be an unexpected result to this upcoming summit?

LB: That’s what people always look for. Expectations have been set pretty low for this summit, so they don’t have a very high bar to beat. So making news in this context would be falling short of or exceeding the relatively modest expectations that have been set.