The G-8

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Bettmann / Corbis

French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing issues the opening statement during the joint press conference of the economic summit, in Rambouillet, France on November 17, 1975. (L-R) Italian Premier Aldo Moro, British Prime Minster Harold Wilson; President Ford, President Giscard D' Estaing, West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Japanese Premier Takeo Miki.

Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco died. The Cincinnati Reds beat the Boston Red Sox to win the World Series. NBC aired the first ever episode of Saturday Night Live. And also in 1975, French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing invited the heads of state and government from West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to a summit in his country. The seeds were sown for what we now know as the Group of Eight.

Originally, this group was made up of six (Canada joined in 1976 and Russia, officially, in 1997) and the idea behind it sprung from the oil crisis and subsequent worldwide recession of 1973. The nations wanted an informal forum to coordinate their macroeconomic policies during the downturn, in addition to formulating a common strategy in dealing with the developing world, which had become less and less dependent on them.

The presidency rotates each year among the members (a new term begins on January 1) with that country responsible for planning and hosting some lower-level meetings, which serve as the build-up to the mid-year three-day event attended by the major players. As this year's G-8 president, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has the honor of hosting Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, Japan's Prime Minister Taro Aso, Russia's President Dimitri Medvedev, U.K.'s Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the U.S.'s President Barack Obama in L'Aquila, the town hit by a horrific earthquake in April. But the G-8 summit is not, and never has been, the place to draft details on major policy initiatives. Rather, it is an opportunity to bring the big issues to the table, thus allowing the leaders to debate and deliberate them together.

Indeed, notable achievements have been attained during its 34 years. With no topic off limits, areas of mutual interest such as the economy, energy, environment, foreign affairs, health, labor, terrorism and trade tend to get discussed. And these discussions, in turn, get written about in the press, sparking conversation among like-minded people around the world. Look past those quintessential G-8 buzzwords like "consultation," "global social integration," and "millennium development goals" and you can see that, in recent years, the summit has given eventual rise to debt forgiveness for poor countries, a significant aid package for Africa and a genuine attempt to tackle climate change.

Nevertheless, protests do go hand-in-hand with the event as activists often allege that it's the G-8 members themselves who are responsible for creating the crises they're trying to solve (poverty and global warming, for example). There have been some major demonstrations this decade, ranging from the relatively peaceful (225,000 people taking to the streets of Edinburgh in July 2005 as part of the Make Poverty History campaign) to the undeniably violent (the Genoa G-8 protests of July 2001, which drew an estimated 200,000 demonstrators with hundreds injured — and even some deaths — following clashes with police). And as recently as Tuesday, the day before the start of this year's G-8, there were 36 arrests after clashes in Rome.

As for the official business at hand, the 2009 G-8 is expected to be dominated by discussion over a new form of world governance in light of the global downturn. What's more, there's talk of the need for a better-structured form of dialogue to deal with the likes of Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa. Recession? Emerging economies? It's almost as if the annual summit has come full circle from its beginnings back in 1975. For the members of the world's most exclusive club, it must seem like déjà vu.