Scholarly Publications and Papers
Help | Free Search | Search by Year | Search by Country | Search by Issue (Subject) | G8 Centre

More Efficiency, Less Dignity:
British Perspectives on the Future Role and Working of the G7

Michael Hodges
London School of Economics & Political Science

[Previous] [Document
Contents] [Next]

The Annual G-7 Summit: A Suitable Case for Treatment?

In July 1994 the G7 will hold their twentieth Summit meeting in or near Naples, some 21 years since US Treasury Secretary George Shultz invited finance ministers from Britain, France and Germany to join him in the Library of the White House to discuss the future of the international monetary system. The Library Group gave rise to the G5 meetings of finance ministers, which in turn inspired the first G6 economic summit at Rambouillet in 1975: finance and foreign ministers were accommodated off-site, the meeting produced an 1100 word declaration and was covered by a few hundred journalists. Canada joined in 1976, and the EC Commission has participated since 1977.

Since that time the annual G7 summits have suffered from the ravages of inflation: in the size of delegations (at Munich the US delegation numbered over 700); in the length of the communiqués (Munich's totalled almost 7,000 words); the number of preparatory meetings (five principal Sherpa meetings for Munich and Tokyo, up from the one or two for the early summits); and in the size of the media contingent (11,400 in Tokyo, 4,250 of them reporters). By the beginning of the 1990s it appeared that economic policy coordination was no longer feasible in the face of recession, that ritual exhortations to complete the GATT Uruguay Round were devoid of influence, and that other international institutions were more effective in grappling with the problems of the post-Cold War era.

The annual G7 summit's exercise in ever more conspicuous consultation predictably attracted negative comment (from observers and participants alike):

In the British view, the Munich summit in 1992 was singularly unproductive: before President Yeltsin arrived it consisted of one ceremonial meal after another, interspersed by prescripted exchanges of almost stupefying boredom. Munich ducked the GATT question (despite John Major's efforts) and the finance and foreign ministers had little to do. An example of the ceremonial aspect was that President Bush and the US sherpa had over 40 vehicles to transport them from one location to another. Tokyo was seen by British officials as a "workmanlike" summit -- but the more the Heads talked, the less the foreign and finance ministers had to do, except for engagement in bilateral discussions.

A major obstacle faced by the G7 summit participants in responding to these criticisms is that, as Putnam and Bayne noted in their study of the summits, they "were 'anti- organizational' in structure...Their informal structure gave the summits distinct advantages in pursuing the information exchange and guideline-setting functions also carried out by international organizations, but precluded them from rule creation and enforcement..."(12) The lack of rules meant that the G7 operated by consensus and thus found it hard to make rapid changes in its own mode of operation.

Helpful suggestions were not in short supply: a number of studies by academics and policy groups have advanced proposals for reforming the G7, including the creation of a secretariat to provide an institutional memory and long-term analysis, the setting of a core agenda including broader issues as well as urgent matters, the assignment of policy oversight responsibilities to the major international institutions (such as the IMF, World Bank, OECD and the GATT), and involvement of specialist ministers (defence, aid, as relevant) to enhance follow-through and policy linkages.(13)

Until the Tokyo Summit in 1993, the G7 communiqués made no reference to the need for reform in the summits themselves. Nevertheless, the experience of Houston, London and Munich in the 1990s (and the increasingly cynical press and public reaction to the perceived ineffectiveness of the annual summits), has stimulated a general consensus among the G7 that the summits must be revamped in structure and content if they are to regain credibility and effectiveness.

In August 1992 British Prime Minister John Major -- frustrated by the failure at London and Munich to overcome the impasse in the GATT Uruguay Round negotiations --sent a confidential letter to his fellow G7 Heads calling for a radical overhaul of the annual summits. His proposals included the following:

The letter clearly generated widespread support for its objective of simplifying and streamlining the annual summits, if not for all the specific measures that Britain proposed; the Tokyo Summit was notable for a reduction in ceremonial and photo- opportunities, but still retained a "precooked" flavour. Significantly, the final Tokyo Economic Declaration stated (paragraph 16):

This paragraph had reportedly been square bracketed in the preparatory Sherpa meetings. One British press report attributed this to resistance by the host country to scaling down the summit (at least until Japan became a Permanent Member of the U.N. Security Council), with some backing by Canada, which also saw the G7 as an indispensable forum for the exercise of its influence. British participants rejected this interpretation, explaining that the paragraph was designed to reflect the personal opinion of the Heads and the natural reluctance of the Sherpas to anticipate their conclusions. Certainly there was no evidence from participants to support the assertion in one British press report that Japan was in favour of creating a permanent G7 secretariat, to provide continuity, institutional memory, and follow-up capabilities.(15)

The following sections I will outline British perceptions and opinions on reform of the G7, including those topics suggested by the Tokyo Economic Declaration quoted above and some of the other proposals made by other G7 countries. On most subjects there was a very high degree of agreement between the officials interviewed, both within and across ministries. Such relative unanimity is undoubtedly the product of efficient communication and coordination within Whitehall, (and the collective responsibility induced by cabinet government and a professional civil and diplomatic service); the observation of one FCO official -- that it was usually impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between the views of the FCO and Treasury on most G7 matters -- seems to be accurate(16). This cohesiveness and coordination of the British approach to the summit can be contrasted with the need of the German Bundeskanzleramt to overcome disputes between finance and economics ministers, or with the interdepartmental friction which sometimes arises in the US. One US Treasury participant is alleged to have said to his British counterpart, after the latter questioned the sending of communications through direct channels rather than secure means of communication: "I'd rather the Russians knew than the State Department"(17).

Since 1987 the UK Sherpa has always been a Treasury official or else a former Treasury official seconded to the Prime Minister's Office, but the Sherpa is the personal representative of the Prime Minister rather than a representative of Treasury interests: the key point is that the UK Sherpas have always been either Secretary to the Cabinet or the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, with direct access to the Prime Minister. Traditionally these posts have been held by senior Treasury officials on secondment, and on a couple of occasions the incumbents have continued to act as Sherpa for a short time even after their return to the Treasury. Most issues concern the Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, although other departments can also be closely concerned (e.g. the Department of Trade and Industry on nuclear safety, or the Department of the Environment on environmental matters). On the nuclear safety issue, for example, the Whitehall coordinating group brought in representatives from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Treasury and the FCO to form a working group; similarly, the Department of Trade and Industry gave briefings on progress on the GATT negotiations.

Source: The International Spectator, 29, No. 2 (April/June 1994), Special Issue, pp. 141-159. Copyright ©, Istituto Affari Internazionali. Reproduced by permission of the author and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

[Previous] [Document
Contents] [Next]

G8 Centre
This Information System is provided by the University of Toronto Library and the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
Please send comments to:
This page was last updated .

All contents copyright © 1995-99. University of Toronto unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.