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The Significance of the Seven-Power Summit

John Kirton

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The Summit As an International Institution

The importance of the seven-power summit is apparent from its remarkable development as an international institution in so short a period of time. In sharp contrast to such milestones in the historic process of organizing internationally as the birth of the League of Nations and UN, the summit did not arise through a single grand act of political architecture and construction producing an edifice intended to last for all time. Rather, much like the Concert of Europe that preserved peace and prosperity in the central global system throughout the early nineteenth century, the modern summit emerged through a continuing and cumulative, if uneven, investment of political will by the powers that counted, in response to crises with which the old order and international organizations were unable to cope.[2]

The summit began as a meeting, called as a one-time event by French President Val‚ry Giscard D'Estaing in Rambouillet, France, in the autumn of 1975. However, the very success of this gathering, a new set of international challenges, pressure from the Japanese, domestic electoral calculations in the United States, and the particular global vision of United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger inspired President Gerald Ford to repeat the experiment at San Juan, Puerto Rico the following year. After that, the summit quickly became a permanent, predictable fixture of the international political cycle. At each summit, the leaders themselves set and announce the host of next year's late spring or summer rendez-vous before they depart.[3]

Equally predictable has been the membership, and the ever-increasing list of frustrated claimants for inclusion. Invitations to the first summit went to only six select States: France the host, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and Italy. These six added Canada in 1976 and the European Community in 1977. But they then closed the doors to this most exclusive club, leaving middle-power aspirants such as Australia and Spain languishing on the outside.

Those admitted to the cozy atmosphere inside have, not surprisingly, grown comfortable lingering ever longer in the confines of this powerful and prestigious club. The day-and-a-half encounters at Rambouillet and Puerto Rico have expanded steadily, despite the pressing domestic demands on busy leaders, to reach the three-day session of the Paris Summit of 1989. For those leaders who arrive early or stay late to conduct bilateral meetings, the summit experience has proven to be worth an even longer investment of time. No other international event -- from the annual autumn opening of the UN General Assembly, through the occasional North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] Heads of Government meetings, to the Commonwealth or francophone summits held every two years, and the now annual summits the United States holds with its superpower counterpart -- comes close to commanding such a large and automatic part of presidents' and prime ministers' time.[4]

As the length of the meeting has expanded, so has the process of preparation. In the early days the host leader simply dispatched a few officials to meet with other governments several months in advance of the event. In 1977, when Jimmy Carter became U.S. President, he appointed a trusted advisor, with cabinet rank, to work on summit preparations on a full- time, year-round basis. Since that time all countries have employed specially designated personal representatives or "sherpas", who normally serve on a continuing basis for several years.[5] These sherpas meet formally on at least four occasions throughout the year preceding the summit, as well as at the opening of, and throughout the summit itself. They are supported by an elaborately layered network of "sous-sherpas" (usually one from the foreign ministry and one from the finance ministry), "sous-sous-sherpas", and political directors. Their quest for consensus, which is a key feature of the summit process, is advanced through the annual or semi-annual ministerial deliberations of the major international economic institutions, notably the International Monetary Fund [IMF], the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD]. The effort generally culminates in a grand tour by the host head of government to the capitals of his or her colleagues for bilateral meetings in advance of the summit. There has even been, on occasion, a triumvirate of leaders meeting together to discuss the forthcoming event, and structured consultations on the part of the summit host with countries and groups of countries left outside.[6]

Such meticulous preparation has set the stage for a considerably more ambitious, intense and consequential gathering than the founders, with their penchant for fireside chats in the library, anticipated. The length of the communiqu‚s in this collection demonstrates that the agenda of the summiteers has steadily expanded, despite the recurrent efforts of the leaders to shorten the document they must approve -- and the host must read -- at the meeting's end. As the political declarations, accompanying statements, and chairmen's summaries indicate most clearly, the agenda of the summits has also widened: the explicit economic focus of the first meeting soon expanded to embrace political, security, social, environmental and a host of other subjects. At the same time the role of the summit has grown: the early emphasis on familiarization, education and deliberation has given way, however unevenly, to firm decision-making, backed by ongoing consultation, effective implementation, and the creation of a new family of summit-related institutions to reinforce the work.[7]

A clear consequence of the increasing international importance of the summits has been their increasing visibility, and controversy, in domestic political life.[8] Despite continuing criticism from journalists who proclaim the gatherings to be a waste of time, the few hundred media representatives who waited under the gray skies at Rambouillet in 1975 had swelled to the army of 4,000 who attended the leaders in the splendor of Venice in 1987 and the modernity of Toronto in 1988, and the 6,000 at Paris in 1989 during the Bicentennial of the French Revolution. Propelled by such attention from the shapers of attitudes of domestic audiences, the summits have entered into the planning and process of national elections, as leaders employ the world's most high-profile international stage to secure maximum political advantage back home. Indeed, the summit, notably in the case of the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, has sometimes appeared as if its primary purpose was to serve as the international committee to re-elect whichever of its "old boy" members, or prot‚g‚s, was up for re-election that year. Not surprisingly, such dynamics have inspired criticism from opposition leaders and domestic organizations claiming that their government's summit performance, or the summit itself, has let the country down.

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