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

Professor John Kirton


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Table H summarizes the patterns of variation on all the dependent and independent variables and measures employed in this study. Taken together, they confirm that the performance of the seven power summit has passed through three distinct phases during the fourteen year history of the institution. During its first five to seven years, the summit operated at a medium to high level in performing its key functions of providing ,policy co-ordination, political direction, and protection against major shocks to international stability and order. During its second phase, centered on the years 1981-1985, the summit's performance dropped to consistently low levels on all these functions. Yet more recently, from 1986 onward, it has risen to at least medium, and in some respects even high, levels of performance once again.

None of the subjective variables examined in this study provide an adequate account of this particular three-stage, high-low-medium pattern. As Table H indicates, the subjectively-related variable that works best - the presence of a failed summit response to a similar shock in the near past - accounts for only the first two periods. It fails to explain the high performance of the summit in responding to shocks in recent years.

The dominance of a summit by leaders of a common party affiliation, whether conservative or non-conservative, is the objective variable that most readily captures subjective elements, notably the "moral and ideological consensus" featured in Morgenthau's classic treatment of the Concert of Europe. By itself, however, the party consensus variable performs badly. It is only when a core objective factor grounded in relative capability is introduced, by doubling the weight given to the United States, that the degree of party consensus or division helps explain the three phase pattern of summit performance.

In sharp contrast, there is a high degree of correspondence between the observed high-to-low-to-medium summit performance record and the sequence and values of five basic components of relative capability. Yet within this group of five lies a major paradox. The two most fundamental dimensions of capability - overall relative capability and US GNP growth relative to its summit partners (with two indicators) - show that a move toward more equal capabilities between the United States and its summit partners and low US growth rankings coincide with periods of poor summit performance. This evidence directly contradicts the hypothesized "concert-equality" model, in which effectively equal capabilities breed high performance summits. It suggests the need to return to hegemonic stability theories, in which an objectively strong United States remains a necessary condition for, in this case, the creation of new regimes (policy coordination and political direction) and the defence of the most basic old ones (order and stability protection).

The final three capability dimensions, however, work very much in the way the concert-equality model would predict. That is, the period of poor summit performance coincided with: 1) a period of rapidly rising and very high values for the US dollar (and thus for relative US GNP measured in current dollar terms); 2) a US external balance that was in surplus and rising; and 3) a US debt that was low and falling relative to US GNP. It was in these circumstances of soaring US relative capability that the performance of the summit was most severely compromised.

Resolving this paradox requires a return to the subjectivists' realm, and to the classic issue of how leaders perceive physical changes in relative capability. It is striking that the two capability dimensions which contradict the concert equality model are those which exhibit little variation over time (less than one percent over a decade in the case of overall relative US capability). Moreover they are not intuitively familiar to leaders (especially the disparate, multidimensional overall capability dimension). And they intrude on their consciousness only periodically (every month or quarter with the release of GNP data). In contrast, the three dimension which coincide closely with the concert equality model are those which are comprehensible and visible to leaders on (in some cases such as exchange rates) a daily basis. There is much historical evidence from the summit to suggest that it was precisely this recognition of a rising US dollar, and its use as evidence that confidence in America and American power was being restored, that induced Ronald Reagan to persist in the unilateral, non-interventionist approach of his first term, despite the at times unanimous pleadings and criticism of his fellow summiteers. It was precisely this deadlock that generated the poor concerted performance of the summit during those years.

This is not to argue that it is perceived rather than real capabilities that count. For that is not what this evidence shows. Rather it shows that both capabilities and cognitions, acting together, count. More precisely, it was the deadly combination of real, underlying relative US weakness and perceived short-term US strength in the early 1980's that caused the summits of those years to fail.

This analysis also suggests that the years following this period of real US weakness and perceived US strength in the early 1980's represent a refocusing rather than a simple revival of the summit's role. During the 1970's, the high performance of the summit was driven by its successes in policy co- ordination. Here fundamental, underlying US strength combined with short term perceptions of a more modest America to permit and inspire major, ambitious package deals. During the late 1980's however, the opportunity-driven achievements of policy co-ordination, (where the summit is performing below its 1970's record), have been replaced by the necessity-driven accomplishments of political direction and stability-order protection (where the summit's performance is high and it some cases has surpassed that of the 1970's). Generating this shift in particular high performance functions has been a United States that has regained some of its basic relative strength, but become acutely conscious of the short-term weaknesses it is acquiring. With both the power and incentive to lead, this United States, embodied historically in Secretary of the Treasury James Baker, has returned to the summit table to seek the consensus necessary to generate the stability required for, and stave off the shocks coming from, a wary world.

This rather rough analysis leaves a rich agenda for further research. Here the first task is to relate more precisely the particular dimensions and measures of summit performance to individual causal variables, and to specify the logical linkages lying behind their empirical relationships. The second task is to trace in more detail, at both the logical and empirical level, the particular process by which changes in causal variables, working together, get transmitted into the changes in individual leaders perceptions, policies, alignments, and propensities to compromise to generate concerted action at the summit table. Following from this is the third task of exploring with much more care the substantially different starting and ending dates for the intervening period (1980-85) that arise in some of the variables used in this study, and, on this basis, considering the leads and lags that operate in the process of causation and transmission.

From a broader perspective there are three major issues worth pursuing. The first is to examine directly additional dimensions and measures of summit success, such as the achievement of each summit in further institutionalizing the summit process, in aiding the re-election prospects for its participants, or in educating its leaders about international affairs. The second is to test directly the causal impact of several additional factors that abound in the literature (for example the proposition that election - afflicted summits are low performance summits.) The third, and most important, is to test the basic propositions of this study not only over the fourteen year time span of the summit but across the space of its distinct if interrelated issue areas. Here one would identify the varying ability of the summit to meet the archtypical definitional properties of a concert across various issue areas (trade, money, north-south, etc.), the changing relative "issue structure" capabilities involved in each, and the resulting performance of the summit in each of these fields. For the case of trade policy in this study indeed suggests that where the summit most perfectly resembles a concert, and where capabilities (and one might add vulnerabilities) are more equal and equalizing, the summit has produced it greatest and most consistent success. (5)

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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