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The Significance of the Seven-Power Summit

John Kirton

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Interpreting the Summit Documents

Unlike the UN and Atlantic institutions, with their gargantuan bureaucracies generating mountains of documentation on a daily basis, the record of the summit's deliberations and decisions is extraordinarily sparse. This sparseness is not an unintended defect of the summit system. Rather, it is a deliberate and central feature of its design. For, much like a cabinet at the domestic level in a parliamentary system, the summiteers have known from the beginning that in order to be effective in their deliberative and decision-making tasks, the norms of confidentiality, and occasionally even secrecy, must prevail. Indeed, the President of one of the summit's founding countries once expressed the view that the ideal summit would be one in which the leaders met in total secrecy, released an announcement only several weeks after the conclusion of the meeting, and revealed in it not what had been discussed or decided, but only that the meeting had taken place. While such a philosophy has not prevailed in practice, if only because the attendance of several thousand journalists provides the elected politicians present with too great a temptation to talk, summits such as Puerto Rico were able to discuss in secrecy sensitive issues, some of which may have remained beyond public knowledge to this day.

This pronounced penchant for privacy means, paradoxically, that the documents that are released publicly by the summiteers are of great importance. Because these documents are so scarce and short, each word, phrase, and sentence commands a significance far beyond its apparent simplicity. Behind each passage lies a particular act of political creativity -- generating the ringing declarations that signal an historic new consensus, or the hard-fought and narrowly-won language that exhaustion and the need to rush to the final communiqu‚-reading creates. In fact, even the most incomprehensible and ungrammatical passages -- and they occur in these summit documents -- signal a rich story of political struggle overwhelmed by a need for resolution beyond all else. And even the most anodyne, technical passages that appear to be (and probably were) drafted by civil servants, and seem likely to put the average citizen to sleep, speak volumes about the considerable degree of order that the summit process has engendered and imposed on an anarchic world.

The documents in this collection thus reflect the drama of the debate, the struggle for dominance, and the quest for leadership among seven of the most powerful countries of the world. Because the summit takes place at the highest political level possible, among individuals who have no domestic equals, these documents provide an intensely personal story, and one of great importance for those who sit below. Summit declarations are compelling because they are so final, for citizens inside and outside the summit countries alike. There is no higher collective authority to whom a decision at a summit can be appealed -- until the summit itself convenes again in another year's time.

This compilation of the summit's documentary record through the fifteen years of its existence thus performs three vital functions. In the first place, it provides a detailed record of the ever-expanding and changing agenda of world politics over the past decade and a half. The collection of the topics that the summit addresses each year is a uniquely comprehensive, precise and meaningful synthesis of the preoccupations, priorities and emerging problems in the global system. In contrast to institutions which deliberately avoid taking up particular issues, or spend their energies consumed by only a few such issues, there are few consequential items or developments of the world's politics, economy and even society that the leaders do not address, even if all are not always revealed in the formal summit documents themselves.

As valuable as this portrait is, the summit's subjects are more than just a static snapshot of the global agenda. Rather, they are a dynamic saga of the politics of agenda formation and legitimation in world affairs. They thus reveal the proliferating demands which peoples place on government, the increasing interdependence of a more closely connected world, the migration of topics from the sovereignty-encrusted realm of domestic politics to the plane of international deliberation, the slow acceptance of shared new challenges in the modern world, and even the recognition by the privileged and their plutocrats of the concerns of those on the outside. In shaping the summit agenda, each member tries to guide the focus of world attention, share its foreign policy preoccupations with others, solicit support and understanding, or get others to help carry a burden they no longer can bear themselves.

In this process, the summit highlights not only the global agenda but the foreign policies of its major actors. The second contribution of these documents, then, is to reveal the real, as opposed to declaratory, foreign policies of the participants, by recording, however indirectly, their positions on the pressing issues of the day.[11] Occasionally, when national responsibilities and commitments are articulated on a national basis (and drafted in practice by the country concerned), the identification of national policy preferences is easy. Far more often, however, the challenge of uncovering each country's true positions is a more creative task. In accordance with the core norms of a concert system, the summit documents are consensus decisions that do not criticize anyone and in the aggregate compliment all. Still, after the many rounds of collective drafting and approval, these documents reveal, in inserted paragraphs, specific sentences, subordinate clauses, and even adjectives, the distinct national imprint, and at times the vital interests, of the particular country that produced them.

Thirdly, these documents provide a comprehensive record not only of the issues and the positions, but also of the decisions that count in contemporary world affairs. Despite a recurrent desire for deliberative rather than decision-making summits, and a persistent cynicism about the willingness or ability of the leaders to keep their summit commitments once the gathering is over, the summits generally do arrive at a consensus and make decisions that stick. The assembled documents thus present the most detailed available record of the values, principles, norms and decisions that are reshaping international order in world politics and economics today. Their power lies not in their status as the articulation of the preferences of fading imperial powers or the desiderata of disembodied "regimes", but in their role as the contemporary conclusions and creations of the great powers acting in concert to impose order on an otherwise messy and dangerous world.

This collection thus provides a comprehensive, systematic compilation of one of the most important sets of documents of our time. Although the texts of the summit documents are made available to the attending journalists at each summit, and the major documents are printed in full in such elite newspapers as The New York Times, they are not readily available to the public whose lives they will affect. Moreover, the summit governments themselves, despite the wealth of documentation they prepare for the media at each summit, usually offer no collection of the entire past record -- and thus no easy way to see if the so-called new ideas and first-time breakthroughs are really new, or if the summiteers have even lived up to their commitments of the previous years. The one existing collection of summit documents includes only the final communiqu‚s and political declarations of each gathering, while omitting the chairman's summaries and briefings that provide context and significance to the event. [12] The latter is material with high public importance but often lost to commentators who subsequently try to assess the importance of the summit. This collection is thus a necessary preliminary to the systematic work required to answer the most critical questions about the summit and its achievements.

For students of both international and domestic politics, then, these are documents that matter. Long after the leaders have flown home, their diplomats in dialogue with difficult foreigners, officials engaged in bureaucratic battles with recalcitrant colleagues in other departments, and leaders tempted to backslide in the parochial heat of the political moment, wave these summit documents at their adversaries, have them waved back at them in turn, and see the provisions of those documents having real, continuing political force. Cheat they can and do, but in the cozy world of summitry, they are inhibited from becoming repeat offenders by the knowledge that they are likely to have their transgressions noticed, and by the certainty that they will have to confront, face to face, their powerful peers in less than one year's time. And should peer pressure alone be insufficient, there is the recognition that those sitting around the table have the ability to do great damage to one's interests if they so choose. If government at home is ultimately defined as a monopoly of the legitimate means of coercion, the international governance of the summit ultimately depends on its oligopoly of the effective powers of persuasion and punishment.

Summit decisions are thus able to bite deeply, and effectively, into the intractable reaches of domestic politics and international institution-building, some of which have long remained immune to the ordinary diplomatic processes of the post-Westphalian world. They can and do impose discipline on the domestic economies of those powerful countries beyond the effective reach of the old international institutions formally charged with this purpose. And they define the parameters, priorities, principles and work programs for the international institutions of the previous two generations. In short, these texts are not just pious expressions of passing politeness from preoccupied politicians but documents that matter in the real world of politics and economics at the national, international and global level alike.

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