With Chicago and the Midwest gearing up to host the Group of 8 and NATO summits on May 19-21, it might be useful now to look at just what these organizations are, and what will go on in their twin meetings. In both cases, perception and reality are two different things.
I have some experience on this. As a reporter, I covered the first G8 summit (it was only the G6 then) in 1975, and later summits as the organization grew in numbers and complexity. Over the years, I also spent time in NATO's rather ramshackle headquarters in Brussels, covering meetings of presidents, foreign ministers, defense ministers and lesser poohbahs.
First, the G8:
In the years after World War II, there was basically the G1 -- the U.S., which absolutely dominated the world economy. When anything needed doing, we did it. But over the postwar decades, other nations, especially the Europeans and Japan, grew in wealth and influence. It wasn't exactly a multipolar world, but there definitely was a group of major industrial nations -- the First World -- that ran the world economy and took the major decisions. The Second World was the Communist countries, who didn't talk to us. The Third World included the so-called developing or undeveloped nations -- poor countries that did little more than provide raw materials.
The oil-producing part of the Third World got our attention in 1973 when OPEC touched off the first oil crisis. First World financial officials began meeting informally then. Two years later, French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing invited the heads of government of the other five major powers -- the U.S. (Gerald Ford was president then), Japan, Germany, Britain and Italy -- to meet at Rambouillet, a small castle south of Paris. They invited Canada to join the next year. In 1997, Bill Clinton, anxious to throw a political bone to a reeling Russia, asked President Boris Yeltsin to attend, making it the G8. The president of the European Union's Commission also attends, ex officio.
Since then, the G8 has held annual summits, rotating between member countries. There is no permanent bureaucracy: rather the host country -- the U.S. this year -- makes arrangements and sets the agenda.
Hence the perception: the G8 includes the mightiest global economies, and the G8 summit discusses the major global economic issues of the day and takes decisions to guide that global economy in the year to come.
The reality is otherwise, but no less interesting. These days, the G8 countries command about half the world's economies, no more. Since Rambouillet, other economies, especially China and India, have risen. The G8 countries are having trouble running their own economies, let alone the world's. Any summit that doesn't include the rising economies can't really decide anything. In a sense, all those demonstrators are coming to Chicago to protest the state of the global economy at a meeting of countries whose ability to shape that economy is growing weaker by the day.
Some of the rising economies -- China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa -- have formed themselves into the Group of Five. They may or may not send delegations to the Chicago summit. It's not really necessary, because there's going to be another summit in Mexico in June for all the major economies -- the U.S., China and the rest -- for leaders of what is now called the G20.
So things have changed since Rambouillet and so has the conversation around the summit table. If the G8 nations aren't what they were, they're still big economies housing most of the world's major banks and other financial institutions. They're also largely each other's best friends. Any meeting that gets their leaders together to discuss major issues has a value in itself.
But that value isn't always what it seems. At the end, the G8 leaders will issue a communiqué summing up their talks and agreements. In fact, this communiqué will have been written, by ministers and other aides (usually dubbed "sherpas"), before the meeting even starts. So what's the point?
The point is that the mere writing of this communiqué forces the sherpas and their nations to align their national interests and sort out any disputes, so some final wording is agreed. This process itself settles disputes, and so the world's business gets done.
The G8 summiteers will spend some time at the conference table. But the real business in Chicago will take place in the corridors or in private meeting rooms at "bilaterals" -- private meetings between leaders. Every leader will want some face time with President Obama. Other leaders will chat, at meetings or over dinners. Sometimes it takes meetings like this to unsnarl international disputes. Two leaders, after chatting, will tell their aides to solve specific problems. Since their bosses have agreed that they want these problems solved, this will happen. Once again, the world's business is done.
It's not the way most people think the G8 works. But it works.
Ditto with NATO. The alliance was formed by America and 11 of its allies in 1949, ostensibly to block any Soviet advance in Europe. It also was seen as a way to keep the mighty United States involved in war-torn Europe's defense, and also to embed Germany in Europe, to keep it from causing any more trouble. Or as Lord Ismay, an early NATO secretary general put it, NATO existed "to keep the Soviets out, the Americans in and the Germans down."
It also provided an American-guaranteed framework of military security within which the postwar Europeans could rebuild their shattered economic and political lives.
Through the Cold War, it worked. As Soviet and NATO positions solidified on either side of the Iron Curtain, NATO became less important as a defense arm -- during the Cold War, it never fired a shot in anger -- than for its political role, as the one institutionalized link tying America to Europe. NATO ambassadors -- 15 nations belonged by then -- met regularly at alliance headquarters near Brussels' Zaventem Airport. At least twice a year, defense and finance ministers came to town. Each year, so did presidents and prime ministers. When America and its closest allies had business to do, NATO was where they did it.
NATO existed because of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended, some analysts said NATO should fold up shop. Instead, it quickly expanded to include many formerly Communist Eastern European nations. All wanted in, to get that American connection: almost none trusted the West Europeans, even though the European Union became their eventual home.
In this way, NATO did for the East Europeans in the '80s what it had done for the West Europeans in the '50s -- give them the confidence of a security framework within which to rebuild their nations.
But NATO really missed the Soviet Union. Without the Soviet threat, it had no obvious purpose. NATO's history since then has largely been a search for a mission. The U.S. has pressed its allies to join it in "out-of-area" operations, which means outside NATO's normal North Atlantic geography. This has led to NATO operations first in Bosnia, then Kosovo, then Afghanistan, most recently in Libya.
One major operation not undertaken by NATO was, of course, Iraq, where the Bush Administration shunned the traditional alliance and went for "a coalition of the willing," with something less than success.
Much of the agenda at the NATO summit will be part of this post-Cold War evolution. The NATO summiteers will be talking about how to wind down the Afghanistan operation and to preserve some stability there after NATO leaves.
Another topic will be what we've learned in Afghanistan and Libya, which is partly that the United States still has to do the heavy lifting: Libya especially proved that many European allies have limited military capacity. The United States wants the Europeans to raise defense spending: the Europeans are resisting. This is an argument that festered throughout the Cold War but has reached new heights of transatlantic rancor.
Because of the global economic crisis, the G8 meeting is expected to draw most of the protesters. But the looming G20 meeting in June means that any decisions taken at the G8 table may be pretty minor. The NATO meeting is likely to be meatier but get less attention from the demonstrators outside.
Thus is the world's work done, usually in forums and organizations that are little understood by that world itself.