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"The Course of Summitry"

The World Today 48, No. 2 (February 1992): 27-30.

Nicholas Bayne

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'Someone observed that economic summitry is like sexual intercourse.' wrote Henry Owen, President Carter's sherpa. 'Unless you've done it yourself, it's pretty hard to describe.' (1) Having 'done it' for three years, that is, taken part in preparing the summits, including the London summit of 1991, I offer a number of reflections about the course of summitry, now in its eighteenth year.

Summitry in general

Each of the seven industrial powers hosts the summit in turn, always in the same order, with France first and Britain third. The first septennial series, from 1975 to 1981, was a period of experiment and innovation, ranging from the elaborate deals at the Bonn summit in 1978 to the austere policy response to the second oil shock. There were profound political changes, as Margaret Thatcher defeated James Callaghan, Ronald Reagan dislodged Jimmy Carter and Francois Mitterrand took the place of Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

The second septennium, from 1982 to 1988, was a period of striking continuity. Thatcher, Reagan and Mitterrand were there throughout, while Helmut Kohl displaced Helmut Schmidt very early on. A sustained economic recovery began in 1983. But the practice of economic policy coordination, a feature of the summits of the first series, passed to the G7 Finance Ministers' group, created at Tokyo in 1986. The leaders themselves gave increasing time to non-economic issues.(2)

The third septennium began with the Paris 'Arch' summit of 1989, followed by Houston in 1990. By the London summit of July 1991 some dominant features of this series were becoming visible.

The personal continuity among the leaders has been broken, with Reagan giving way to George Bush and Thatcher to John Major. There has been a very rapid turnover of Japanese leaders, which has weakened Japan's role in the summits by comparison with Yasuhiro Nakasone's long tenure in the mid-1980s. But political continuity has so far been as strong as ever, with a Conservative leader still in London and a Republican President in Washington. Both Brian Mulroney and Kohl have been renewed in office since the cycle began, the latter becoming leader of a reunited Germany. Former finance ministers are reappearing among the leaders. These provided six out of eight in 1978 (3) but had dwindled to zero by 1983. The tally is now back at four at the time of writing with Jacques Delors, Giulio, Andreotti, John Major and Kiichi Miyazawa.

Nevertheless, the G7 Finance Ministers retain their grip on economic policy coordination. The summits have reviewed the issues, but added little of their own - though this could change if recovery falters in 1992. The seven finance ministers now meet regularly three to four times and in between their deputies meet much more often. There is an element of tension here, in that the European Community (Commission and Presidency) are part of the summit process but are not in the G7 Finance Ministers' Group (4). This tension may grow since the EC has been rather successful, in the current series, in deploying its collective weight at the summits. There have been none of the open disagreements within the EC such as was seen, for example, at Bonn in 1985. At the same time, relations between European and non-European summit participants were well managed in 1989 and 1991, when the European hosts, France and Britain, could ensure that EC and summit processes moved on consistent lines. This was less successful in 1990, when the Americans preparing for the Houston summit in July were taken by surprise by European Council decisions in June about the Soviet Union and Brazilian forests. It will need careful handling when Japan has the chair in 1993.

The non-economic, foreign policy elements in the summit process continue to gain ground. The key decisions on helping Poland and Hungary taken at the Paris summit emerged from the political preparations, not the economic ones. The spread of democracy all over Central and Eastern Europe gave the political theme for Houston in 1990. The Gulf crisis exerted a powerful influence over the preparations in 1991, stimulating the key political decisions at London: on strengthening international discipline over conventional arms transfers and on improving the UN's capacity to respond to humanitarian crises. An important innovation has been to extend the role of the Political Directors of foreign ministries, alongside the sherpa teams, in addressing the foreign policy issues of concern to the summit leaders. This is particularly welcome to the Japanese, who are not involved in political consultations under the North Atlantic Alliance or the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe(CSCE).

The traditional economic agenda for the summits has been economic policy, monetary issues, trade, energy, and relations with developing countries. By the third septennium, only one and a half of these traditional items regularly occupied the leaders themselves: in international trade and debt problems, a specific aspect of relations with the third world. The leaders attention had shifted to a different range of issues, very suitable to summit treatment, in that they combined political and economic elements.

The first category of these is transnational issues, where effective solutions require truly worldwide cooperation. Among these, the environment and drugs have emerged as major subjects at the last three summits. They join terrorism, especially hijacking and hostage taking, a regular summit item since 1980. Migration, first signalled at London may well soon be added. The second category can be called historic changes. These may be regional in scope but call for a collective international response, both economic and political, to encourage and support fundamental change. The current examples are, naturally Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and its successors.

But the introduction of new issues, while the old ones are still nominal on the agenda, weigh heavily upon the summit process. The sherpas have to meet more often. The economic declarations grow longer - the Toronto declaration of 1988 had 11 pages: the Paris declaration had 17: the Houston document came out with 20. The numbers and length of non-economic documents are also increasing. In preparing for the London summit, we did our best to check these inflationary trends. We made only limited progress, as circumstances were against us. Mr Major was taking the chair at his first summit as a leader and could hardly propose radical departure from practices developed by his more experienced colleagues. The uncertainties of the Gulf crisis and of developments in the Soviet Union brought new items onto the agenda, such as energy and the economics of the Middle East. Even so we managed with four sherpa meetings as against five before both Paris and Houston, despite the complication of inviting Gorbachev. The economic declaration is shorter than the Paris and Houston documents. But, at 64 paragraphs, it is still too long and, as Chancellor Kohl remarked to the sherpas, only they really understand what it means. The pressure from the leaders themselves for simpler procedures and shorter documents is gathering strength.

Copyright ©, The World Today / The Royal Institute of International Affairs. Reproduced by permission of The World Today.

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