What is this G8 thing people are talking about, and why should I care?

This is the first of an occasional series of posts on next year’s G8 meetings to be held in Chicago in May. My goal is to inform myself and you about the upcoming G8/NATO meetings and protests. I’m unapologetically sympathetic to the issues likely to be raised by protesters, but am not taking a stand at this point on what the best strategy for protesters to take might be under the current circumstances. There are a lot of different opinions on this.

First, a bit of history about the G8. This group was first convened by France in 1975 to address the oil crisis that had begun in 1973. At that time, the group included France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, and was known as the Group of Six. Canada was added in 1976, and Russia in 1997, making eight countries, hence “G8.” At the 2009 Pittsburgh Summit, it was announced that the G8 would be superseded as the “main international economic forum” by the G20, a group consisting of twenty of the largest world economies, in 2009. The G8 continues to meet, although its role has become less clear. At the G8 meetings, heads of state, government ministers (finance, interior, and foreign ministers), and their staffs plan, discuss, and establish policy. it has no official role in international governance, its agreements carry no legislative force, but they frame debates and establish shared language that has real effects. Representatives of member countries, which represent about half the world’s wealth, wield substantial economic and political power. In May of 2012, when the G8 meets in Chicago together with NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) it will be only the second time in history that the two organizations have met at the same time in the same place. The first was London in 1977. Meeting together suggests that the G8 nations see their economic interests as bound up with their military interests and strategies.

OK, so, why protest? There is a range of reasons why people protest against the G8:

- In political terms, the G8 is undemocratic. Some protesters believe the group makes decisions with far-reaching impact in an undemocratic and non-transparent way and should be abolished or changed. Even considering only rich nations, the group is disproportionally European.

- Some see this grouping of rich nations as a symbol of global economic inequality, the strategies used to maintain it, and the disproportionate impact of the policy decisions of rich countries on poor. Whether this is part of the conscious intention of all participants or not, such meetings serve to shore up the power of the rich.

- Some protesters, whether or not they recognize the G8 as a legitimate body, use the occasion to pressure G8 members on specific issues of concern. Some will address their messages directly to the forum in hopes of being heard. But, since many protesters do not believe the G8 is a legitimate body at all, many will focus mainly on trying to use the media attention generated by the meeting as a tool for making their messages more widely visible.

- Some protesters want to draw attention to local issues that have to do with expenditures and police presence at the meeting itself. Like the Olympics, the G8 is an expensive meeting whose economic benefits to the host city are much touted but actually unclear. In recent years similar meetings have been used as a pretext for spending on pet projects and for the militarization of municipal police forces.

- Historically, a very small number of protesters have chosen to express their beliefs through activities such as property destruction and confrontation with police.  Generally their use of violence is vastly outmatched by police power. In fact, it‘s often suggested, and has in some cases been conclusively proven, that some so-called “black bloc” protesters are actually police agents provocateurs attempting to stir up trouble to justify security expenditures and crackdowns.

Protest is not limited to marching in the streets. Many organizations whose members participate in protests also engage with the G8 in other ways: alternative forums, festivals, meetings, and publicity campaigns. Protest has become a standard and expected feature of G8 meetings, and at times, the G8 has actually reached out to what it calls “civil society” to seek input. It is unclear to what extent any such “civil society” forum has influence on policy.

Issues likely to be raised at the G8 and associated protests include global climate change, war, food security, agriculture, human rights and civil liberties, indigenous rights, development aid, access to HIV drugs, and cybersecurity and digital access.  I’ll be writing about some of these issues in coming weeks and months.

This series on the G8 is also appearing at the Mayoral Tutorial:http://www.mayoraltutorial.com