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

Professor John Kirton


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Since its inception in 1975, the annual summit of the leaders of the world's major industrial democracies and the European Community has come to represent one of the more impressive developments in international institution-building in the post world war two period. During its decade and a half existence, the summit has grown from a brief, one-time only gathering of an ad hoc group of countries, into a permanent, predictable and lengthy meeting of the same seven most powerful countries in the noncommunist world. The summit has resisted attempts to transform it into an international organization, replete with a secretariat, budget, and fixed geographical headquarters. Yet it has spawned an informal, but highly defined network of supporting personnel in its member governments, an elaborately structured preparatory process, an ever widening web of precursor consultations with major countries and groups on the outside, and a set of supporting institutions to reinforce its work. At the same time, its activities have expanded from informal discussion to collective decision-making on a longer, wider and more detailed set of major issues in domestic and international affairs. Partly as a result, the seven-power summit has become an increasingly large factor in domestic political life, with the annual gathering attended by growing thousands of journalists, entering into the election planning of leaders, and becoming the source of opposition complaint.

While outside observers have watched this institution grow and wondered about its significance, a steady succession of summit insiders has suggested that the summit has indeed had some real and positive effect. Perhaps the most persuasive testimony has come from those individuals who have seen the summit process at its most intimate and frustrating by serving as the personal representatives, or "sherpas", of the leaders themselves. John Hunt, British sherpa from 1975 to 1978 has written that the "summit has notched up some significant achievements", while his successor from 1978 to 1987, Robert Armstrong, has concluded that "the holding of the annual Economic Summits helps to make the development of the world macro-economy better managed and more positive than it would be if the Summits did not occur" (Hunt and Owen 1984:659, Armstrong 1988:8). From the United States, Henry Owen, President Carter's sherpa, has declared the summit to be "an institution that has done some good work and could do a great deal more", while one of President Reagan's sherpas, Robert Hormats, judges its subordinate Group of Five and Group of Seven bodies to have been an effective "framework to manage currency movements and to encourage policy compatibility." (Hunt and Owen 1984:661,Hormats 1988:110). Canadian Allan Gotlieb, a sherpa at three summits, has written that the summit is "an essential part of a larger international consultation and decision-making process," while his compatriot Sylvia Ostry, sherpa at the last four summits, asserts "the progress in policy co-ordination since the Bonn Summit has been considerable" (Gotlieb 1987:6, Ostry 1988:8). And from the European continent, Pascal Lamy, sherpa for M. Jacques Delors, President of the Commission of the European Community, notes that "Over a number of issues there seems to be a trend towards making more concrete decisions." (Lamy 1988:2).

Even more impressive, is the growing, if grudging, scholarly consensus about the effectiveness of the institution. The major work on the summit concludes 'the summits of the 1970's were central to the economic history of those years...", even while noting that "the practical effects of Western summitry during the 1980's have been modest. (Putnam and Bayne 1987:267). A second recent major study, done by a combination of summit insider and scholarly outsider concludes that "... summits are probably the only forum for crisis prevention or for catalyzing crisis management", even if they can be credited with " best an essentially episodic contribution to international economic co-ordination." (Artis and Ostry 1986:7). Similarly, the major studies of the summit from earlier in the decade conclude that summits have "considerably helped the west to live through a decade made difficult by repeated energy crises and negative economic conditions" (Merlini 1984:209), have "a number of ... useful and specific achievements to their credit" (Watt 1984:3), and that without the summit, "La conjoncture internationale aurait ete encore plus sombre qu'elle ne le fut." (de Menil 1983:55). More recently, a host of more precisely focused scholarly analyses have asserted the summit's effectiveness in tipping otherwise deadlocked domestic coalitions in desired directions (Ikenberry 1988, Putnam 1988), or more generally in providing "a check on perverse domestic policies" (Waverman and Wilson 1989:1).

Despite this consensus about the need to take the summit seriously as a force in international relations, there remains considerable disagreement about the ways in which it exerts its impact, where and when it has enjoyed maximum effectiveness, how it should be operated to deliver results in the future, and, above all, why it works well in accomplishing its central functions. The debates over these points, fueled by the contributions of practitioners, commentators and scholars from at least seven national communities over almost a decade and a half, have generated a rich array of competing and overlapping frameworks, creative insights, and historical controversies about what really happened at the summits and why. But beneath this kaleidoscope lie two basic, competing conceptions of the summit process. (1) These two conceptions are well known to summit practitioners who readily identify themselves as either "Librarians" or the "Trilateralists" (Putnam and Bayne 1987). They are somewhat familiar to students of international institutions more generally who pursue either "reflective" or "rationalistic" approaches (Keohane 1988:379). They can properly be labelled, in the scholarly debate over the summit specifically, the ''subjectivist'' and "objectivist" views respectively (following Merlini 1984).

In explaining the role, origins, record, causes of success, and desirable development of the summit, "subjectivists" emphasize variables closely related to leader's personal participation. These are: the value of personal contact, familiarization, education and domestic political perception; the close personal relationship between Giscard and Schmidt when they created the forum; the summit's declining effectiveness when the founding generation of friends passed from the scene; the individual cognitive and interpersonal small group dynamics unleashed in the summit gathering; and the need to keep the forum flexible, informal and intimate. In contrast, "objectivists" emphasize variables located at higher levels of analysis. These are: the summit's role in collectively co-ordinating, accommodating, justifying and creating policies; the seminal need to interrelate economic and political factors in managing major new shocks to international order; the increasing success of the summit in doing this as the later 1980's unfolded; the primacy of declining US power, growing interdependence and poor economic performance in breeding summit success, and the desirability of further institutionalizing the summit process.

Thus far there has been only one major systematic scholarly effort to test the causal variables that underlie these competing conceptions (Putnam and Bayne 1987). Its conclusions have lent support primarily to the subjectivist interpretation of summitry. It locates the causes of summit success in four factors: the willingness of the United States to lead and another major power to follow; "the reigning ideas and the salient historical lessons as interpreted by leaders in each era"; the absence of national elections in the pre-summit period; and the "changing mosaic of political and ideological alignments" at the domestic level. (Putnam and Bayne 1987:275,277) At the same time, it has eliminated or set aside as relevant causes four more objective factors. These are: particular configurations of national interests; prosperity or recession in the summit countries; the distribution of capability among the members; and international or summit-inspired regimes.

These conclusions, resting as they do on roughly defined, rather restrictive and loosely measured variables, have inaugurated, rather than concluded the debate. Indeed, the early version of Putnam and Bayne's study, on which these conclusions largely rest, led two ex-sherpas to disagree on both their scholarly analysis and the subject of the summit itself. Their assessments divided, predictably, along subjectivist and objectivist lines (Hunt and Owen 1984).

This lack of consensus results in part from a lack of clarity about how the summit is properly viewed. Here the (usually implicit) conceptions range from seeing the summit as an embryonic, comprehensive new network of international organizations, to considering it as merely one forum among many where leaders of advanced industrial democracies get together for a few days in a busy year. From this uncertainty flows widely varying views of the summit's proper purposes. The candidates range from domestic political enhancement, and leadership education, through international deliberation or decision-making, to dirigiste management of the global economy. Not surprisingly, these disagreements have bred differences about the success of the summit in meeting desired performance criteria, particularly as the summits and summiteers of the 1970's (the golden years) have been succeeded by those of the 1980's (when the record is said to have become tarnished). And these differences have led, in turn, to competing conceptions of what the causes of summit success and failure are.

This paper joins the debate by arguing that the seven power summit is properly conceived as the modern equivalent and expression of an international concert, of the sort that great powers in multipolar systems have occasionally formed during the past two centuries. Despite some differences, and the difficulties inherent in comparing concrete international institutions across centuries, the contemporary seven-power summit shares with previous concerts the essential definitional characteristics of a concert. It is an institution that arises when a seminal shock to system stability inspires an exclusive group of all, interdependent, effectively equal and collectively predominant great powers to engage in institutionalized, well-supported summit diplomacy, to provide system stability and international order.

As an international concert the seven-power summit serves three primary purposes: defending the core values of the society of states and its great power protectors against severe shocks; defining international order in areas where the old regime has been destroyed or rules have yet to be defined; and devising those particular co-ordinated programs and mechanisms required to secure compliance with these new definitions. By these criteria the summit has not slid from success in the 1970's to failure in the 1980's, but has experienced a threefold progression - from effectiveness in the period 1975-1980, to reduced effectiveness in the period 1981-1984, to a renaissance in effectiveness in the period 1985-1988.

This particular three-stage pattern of success and failure is caused by variations in three basic, "objective" factors: the distribution of relative capabilities among the members; the compatibility in party affiliation of the leaders; and, to a lesser extent, the threats to their status as major, market-oriented, industrial democracies managing a supportive international order. Of less relevance in explaining summit performance are such "subjective" factors as the eroding memories of a particular dominant "lesson of the past", any consistent learning process among the leaders, or any autonomously-generated, national-level willingness to lead. However the major objective variable-relative capability among summit members - has its greatest explanatory power only when combined with two, subjectively-related variables: the substantive similarity of new shocks with the seminal spectre that generated the concert; and sharp short term, substantial changes in those economic performance capabilities leaders are most likely to recognize and trust.

To generate these conclusions, this paper first examines the concept of an international concert, defines its characteristics, demonstrates that the seven-power summit meets them, specifies the purposes of concerts and identifies the causes of concert success. It then describes the pattern of seven power summit performance over the past fourteen years in generating significant agreements, redefining the international agenda, and responding to shocks to stability in the system. It finally examines the causes of this variable performance, examining in turn shifts in subjective factors, shock severity and similarity, common party affiliation, and various forms of relative capability.

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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