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Contemporary Concert Diplomacy:
The Seven-Power Summit and the Management of International Order

Professor John Kirton

The Seven-Power Summit as an International Concert

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Modern scholars of international politics have not been oblivious to the possible relevance of the concept of international concert in helping them conceive of and explain the phenomenon of "co-operation under anarchy". (Jervis 1985, Elrod 1976, Morgenthau 1967). Nor have students of the seven power summit been entirely closed to the possibility that the summit might best be interpreted as a modern manifestation of the concerts of old. (Wallace 1984). Yet neither group has yet made use of the insights of the other, nor recognized how modern analyses of the dynamics of international concerts provide focused but competing subjectivist and objectivist interpretations of the way small groups of like-minded great powers co-operate under conditions of anarchy in the preservation of international order.

For Morgenthau and Jervis, the leading subjectivists, concerts arise only after "a large war against a potential hegemon", when "several actors of relatively equal power", wishing above all to "survive", eschew the normal balance of power tendency to ally with anyone "on the basis of short term interests" or to use war "as a legitimate instrument of statecraft". Rather, the shock of the recent war leads to the preservation of the "unusually close bonds among the states of the counter-hegemonic coalition", and induces them to "renounce war", thus creating an "unusually high and self-conscious level of co-operation". (Jervis 1985, 59-62). The causes of such a behavioral transformation lie in several subjective factors: the shared memory of fighting together, the shared definition of the defeated hegemon as an abnormal power, and the remembered high costs of war and its accompanying social unrest. Inevitably however, as time passes, memories, bonds, fears, and shared definitions fade, and frictions over burden sharing increase. Finally, a new generation comes to power with no first hand experience of the formative lesson and purpose of the concert and, in Morgenthau's treatment, with far less diplomatic brilliance than those they replace. This natural path of demise is mediated by four factors: the relations between offensive and defensive strategies, payoffs, transparency and timely warning, and estimates and predictions of others' actions. The exemplar of a successful concert system was the 1818 Concert of Europe, where "diplomacy by conferences among the great powers which would meet all threats to the political system by concerted action." (Morgenthau 1967:210)

For Elrod, the leading, if by no means complete, objectivist, the proximate cause of the Concert was also the shared realization of the statespersons of the time that the predecessor system had failed in its core tasks of keeping the peace and the sovereign independence of the units. But in its effective operation for over a quarter century, it survived the demise of the original statespersons, their shared memories, and the growing ideological divisions between conservatives and liberals among their successors. It finally fell prey to three objective factors - the industrialization of national economies, the democratization of national political systems, and the fact that "Excessive weakness as well as superabundant strength of an essential member posed a serious menace to the system." (Elrod 1976:166)

Despite these disagreements over the record and causes of the Concert of Europe, subjectivist and objectivist authors alike are largely agreed on the definition of a concert, the functions which it performs, and the mechanisms through which it performs them. Following their treatment, a concert can be defined as existing when (1) a seminal shock to the stability of the prevailing order leads (2) an effectively equal, collectively predominant, interdependent group of all great powers, (3) to develop institutionalized summit diplomacy and supporting consultative mechanisms (4) to provide system stability and create necessary international order.

The first definitional element, a seminal shock to the system, is classically provided, as in 1818, 1919, and 1945, by an expansionist hegemon who through military means destroys for a lengthy period the peace of the system, and the sovereignty and independence of many of its unit members. This hegemon is contained only at enormous cost and destructiveness by an ultimately successfu1 coalition of other great powers. In the modern, multilateral nuclear systems a less effective but nonetheless adequate formative event can be provided by concentrated series of shocks, defined as sudden, severe, surprising and costly challenges to the prevailing international order and the stability of its great power protectors. (2)

In the case of the seven-power summit, this Napoleonic, Bismarkian, or Hitlerian equivalent was provided by the tightly spaced, partially-interrelated, largely war and military-driven threats to (and from) the United States in particular and to the west (including Japan) in general, from 1968 to 1975. Specifically, these seminal shocks were the political reversals of the 1968 and 1975 US defeat in Vietnam, the 1973 Mid East War (and oil cutoff), the 1974 Indian nuclear explosion, and the economic threats of the 1971 and 1973 collapse of the Bretton Woods system, the 1973 oil price rise, and the 1974 demand for a New International Economic Order. Taken together, the physical (as opposed to autonomously psychological) severity of these shocks was sufficient to destroy the prevailing International order (the Asian-Pacific power balance, the international monetary and potentially trade regimes) and the economic, social and political stability of the western great powers. It was precisely to respond to this destroyed monetary and threatened trade system, and the much larger crisis of governability, that the seven-power summit was formed.

The second definitional element of a concert, an exclusive grouping of all, effectively equal and collectively predominant interdependent great powers in the system - is fundamental to the existence and overall operation of a concert system. (3) As Elrod notes, "...the Concert of Europe meant great power tutelage over the rest of Europe. It consisted only of the great powers; lesser states were occasionally consulted when their interests were involved, but they possessed few rights and certainly not that of equality." (Elrod 1976: 163). With this particular configuration of grouped relative capability in the system lie four particular specifications. Thus a concert must contain (1) all the great powers in an interdependent system, (2) contain only great powers as core members, (3) maintain a predominance of capability vis-vis the remainder of the system, and (4) an effective equality of capability among concert members.

Thus, concerts combine the minimum number of independent actors (only great powers), to mobilize the maximum amount of collective capability (all great powers). They do so not to prevail in the short term on behalf of transient interests with a maximum individual division of the spoils (as in the minimum winning coalitions of balance of power theory), but to predominate over the long term in a system devoid of interdependent great powers left on the outside to cause harm or organize resistance. Inclusion of all the extra great powers (i.e. beyond those required for a minimum winning coalition) removes the policy incentive and material power for revisionism from the system at the great power level, while reducing the possibility of a single state having dominant capabilities within. Yet the restriction to only the great powers helps maintain the effective equality of those within, while reducing to a minimum the number of possible consequential defectors and free riders that have to be monitored. The common and exclusive "great powerness" of concert members helps ensure each have the capability necessary to contribute (burden share) and monitor, and engenders systemic and long term interests on the part of each. It may also generate feelings of prestige, a sense of elitism, and other social- psychological dynamics that in turn override national self-interest, but these supplementary subjective elements are not necessary to its effective operation. Even a properly configured collection of cynical competitors who refuse to get caught up in the interpersonal dynamics of international groupthink can make a concert work.

The seven power summit has strained to meet the four requisite capability criteria, but has succeeded in doing so to a minimum extent. At the time of its formation in 1975, the seven (exclusive of the additional European Community members) possessed 51% of overall material capability, 66% of economic capability and 50% of the military capability in the system composed of the world's thirteen most powerful countries, (Cline 1978:138), giving it the required predominance over outsiders. Effective equality existed, however tenuously, in the fact that the largest of the seven, the United States, commanded less than half of the capability in the seven- power group, and the smallest (Italy in this data set) enough that it alone could deny or grant the leader or the coalition of all the others the margin of dominance (set at a fifty percent threshold). The interdependence of the seven among one another, in contrast to with those on the outside, rested (apart from political and social interactions and emulations) in their high degree of economic openness to one other (as compared to outsiders), and the importance of these external transactions to their national economies (Artis and Ostry 1987). Finally, the status hierarchy of the international system at the time (Gotlieb 1978) supported the claim that Canada and Italy deserved the status of great powers and hence inclusion (in contrast to other "upper middle powers" such as India and Brazil), while those undisputed great powers of the global system on the outside (the Soviet Union and China) were neither sufficiently interdependent with the other great powers to warrant exclusion in what was initially conceived as primarily an economic summit, nor sufficiently powerful to threaten the predominance of the seven in the global system as a whole.

Even from this cursory description, however, it should be clear that the seven power summit is not a general, global concert over a 170 actor international system. It is however, a global economic concert, particularly if one adds the additional European Community members as the eighth members of the summit (Lamy 1988), and excludes the Soviet Union and China (on the grounds that they remain outside the interdependent global economic system). It is thus within the economic, rather than politico-military sphere (and in the specific economic areas such as trade where the seven power summit most closely approximates the perfect concert conditions) that one would expect the summit to perform best.

The third definitional criterion of a concert is that of institutionalized summit diplomacy with supporting consultative mechanisms for preparation, delegation and follow-up. As in the Concert of Europe, these institutionalized practices tend to emerge over time rather then being born full blown at the outset. They depend on elaborate preparation as a prelude to or in the absence of summit diplomacy. And they avoid becoming or breeding formal international organizations. This institutionalization (i.e. the interaction endures permanently with high pattern definition and thus predictability) is essential in generating the repeated games that create the "long shadow of the future" that in turn alters payoffs and redefines interests. It is also essential in providing the surveillance mechanisms and accountability sessions that make it probable defectors will be caught, and charged, by the collectivity of those with the requisite capability and interdependence to impose punishments if they so choose. Summit-level diplomacy is essential because the leaders alone, by virtue of their place in national decisional hierarchies, are uniquely able to make tradeoffs across national and international realms, and various functional values required for the linkages in package deals, and to make binding commitments to conclude deals in a collective forum. Such tradeoffs and commitments may be easier to arrive at if all the leaders at the table share a common political or economic ideology. But the shared sense of being "lonely at the top" or similar sensations are not a requisite for effective concerted action.

This is the one criteria that the seven power summit meets most easily, and far better than its Concert of Europe, League Council or Security Council predecessors. For this modern concert (even acknowledging its Library Group origins) began as a summit, and quickly became an annual one with a well-developed set of rules. Despite the emergence of an elaborate preparatory process and a galaxy of subordinate ministerial and official groups, it remains centered on the personal representatives of the leaders and has avoided any elements of international organization.

The fourth definitional element of a concert - to provide system stability and create necessary international order - deals with the purposes of the institution and the functions it performs. In considering these purposes- and hence the performance standards by which concerts might reasonably be judged, it is important to recall that concerts are highly conservative creatures. Their purpose is not to impose any particular comprehensive new grand design on the international system, but merely to provide "a vehicle for the peaceful management of great power rivalries" (Elrod 1976: 170), for countries that above all want only to survive. Yet at the same time, because they emerge in an environment where the established international order has been destroyed or delegitimized by the seminal shocks that create concerts, they have an ability to create order, beyond the minimum of stability, with relative ease.

From this focus flows three particular purposes or performance criteria, of concert diplomacy. The first is to defend the essential minimum of international order and its great power guarantors against major shocks to the system, from societies and states on the inside or outside. Concerts are thus the providers of an insurance policy, or the guarantors of last resort, that defend minimum standards of order in the international society of states. The standards include the sanctity of diplomats, the state's monopoly of the legitimate means of violence (in the face of terrorism), and the existing constitutional order or political regime within the great powers themselves.

The second task of a concert is to define international order in new areas - those where the established order has been destroyed, or where order has yet to be established at the international level. It is here that the summiteers of the concert system are free to engage in the politics of leadership and legitimation, and provide political direction to a waiting world.

The third, and most ambitious purpose of a concert is to design specific arrangements to maximize the welfare of their members and the larger system on whose behalf they operate. This function, which is particularly but not uniquely a product of the modern age of ambitious government, acquires its relevance to concerteers only once minimum stability is preserved, and necessary order created where none exists. In such conditions concerts have the luxury of looking for lost opportunities to create an optimum world. Because this third task is a more difficult one, but gets taken up only after the other two are fulfilled, it is not surprising that concerts, measured on this dimension alone, tend to do well only when the international environment is relatively undemanding.

What then makes concerts work effectively in fulfilling these functions? Here, from the work of Jervis, several competing chains of causation can be identified. The first, is the shock of a prolonged, narrowly-won and costly hegemonic war leading to shared beliefs in the abnormality of the defeated hegemon and the unavailability of war as a cost-effective instrument of statecraft. The second is the same war, which generates an institutional context of unusually close bonds, and hence an expectation that this cooperation will continue. The third is that same war, which leads to large scale social unrest at home, - and through the interdependence of social contagion, the fear that domestic revolt anywhere will spread everywhere. And the fourth is that same war breeding fears of the resurgence of the defeated state.

As time goes on, as memories fade, and as the founding generation passes, the effective strength of these cognitively carried linkages erodes. But this progression, and the strength of the linkages, depends critically on several, non-cognitive factors: whether the defeated hegemon is, or becomes (and hence looks like) a normal great power or abnormal evil aggressor at any post-shock moment (e.g. a member of Napoleon's family coming to power); the real cost of fighting, given national strength, relative capability and international interdependence (e.g. military action to secure Saudi Arabian oil supplies), the degree of institutionalization of wartime/shocktime co-operation, (e.g. the Library group), the length and strength of its postwar endurance (through the G5, G7 and Summit itself), the current fact rather than distant recollection and future fear of revolutionary unrest in proximate powers (Communist Parties gaining seats and coming to power in great power concert governments); and the actual capability of the defeated state relative to the victor concert powers hanging together and alone. These additional variables may be treated as merely random, exogenous reminders that inspire reconcertation at unpredictable points. But even in such a conception they have objective roots.

The causal importance of such physical, as opposed to cognitive, postwar/postshock follow-ons, is even more apparent when one examines the four major mechanisms through which concerts work. For many of these are grounded in, and dependent upon, objective factors, many of which should produce stronger rather than weaker concerts and co-operation as time goes on.

Firstly, the distinguishability and configuration of offensive and defensive strategies is partly dependent upon the physical characteristics and relative supply of offensive versus defensive capabilities (such as money or programs available for agricultural export subsidies, as opposed to domestic land set aside). Moreover the expectation that the system will last, and its consequent de-emphasis on short-run rather than long-run gains, should strengthen as a given institutional arrangement endures.

Secondly, in the realm of payoff structures, the unifying fear of a defeated ex-hegemon should depend on the objective capability of that particular country relative to that of the members of the concert collectively. Given that defeated ex-hegemons are at their point of maximum relative weakness immediately after the war, but gain relatively afterward, their capabilities and thus the unifying fear and concert co-operation should increase over time. In addition, fear that an ex-hegemon will take advantage of splits in the concert depends upon the relative capability of its individual members relative to the challenger. Current real, as well as distant remembered, domestic revolutions and the social contagion of interdependence provide strong incentives toward unity among concert members. Decreased fears of exploitation require a multiplicity of states in a concert. Moreover each additional member increases the size of the safety net should defection take place. Moreover if all members are strong states, i.e. great powers, each has its own national safety net, or margin for error, and hence an incentive to take a short term chance on co-operation. The prospect that all concerteers will gang up against a defector reduces a would be defector's incentive to defect only if these capabilities are preponderant relative to the defector's. Here the ideal distribution to guard against any members' possible defection is to have all members with equal capability, for any state with stronger capability has a greater incentive to fall prey to the hope that it can defect and prevail. Moreover, the best way to create satisfied powers who do not wish to defect in the first place is to admit to the concert all the great powers, (especially the vanquished who did not create the status quo). Finally, as Jervis recognizes, the perception of payoff structures can be altered by the objective international institutional variables of frequent meetings (which breed long shadows and transparency), joint negotiations with outsiders (the Concerteers of Europe with the Turks or the Summit seven with the third world fifteen,) and formal and mutual self-denying ordinances (standstill agreements on trade protectionism). Here success breeds increasing success.

Thirdly, transparency and timely warning arise from the objective international institutional variables of inspection, verification, high communication, advance warning and consultation mechanisms ("surveillance" in seven-power summit parlance). They also flow from the objective capabilities (e.g. exchange reserves) that permit a country to believe it can defect (e.g. from a package deal involving exchange rate commitments).

Fourthly, in the realm of changed estimates of the behaviour of others, cheating is encouraged by the belief that others must continue to co-operate because they are weak, even if you defect. Only if all are also great powers, and thus have the defection option of their own, is the incentive for continued co-operation on one's own part there. And here again, equal capabilities among all members is the ideal disincentive to defection.

Source: Prepared for the annual meeting of the International Studies Association and the British International Studies Association, London, March 29-April 1, 1989. Unpublished in print. Reproduced by permission of Professor John J. Kirton.

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