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The Significance of the Seven-Power Summit

John Kirton

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The Summit System and International Order

Such overwhelming attention is a natural product of the pageantry, power, and potential that arises when seven of the world's most powerful countries meet at the highest political level to deal with the most difficult issues of the day; it is also commensurate with the larger significance of the summit in the process of building international order. For, taken as a whole, the summit system represents the third, and in some respects the most effective, great wave of international institution-building in the post-war era.[9]

The first such wave began in the dying days and immediate aftermath of the Second World War when the victorious powers, organized as the United Nations against the axis powers, erected in the UN system an integrated network of increasingly universal institutions -- the Security Council, General Assembly, and functional agencies -- to create and manage a new international order. Despite its many achievements, however, the UN system suffered from a fundamental flaw in design that left it increasingly unable to cope with a rapidly evolving world. In organizing its Security Council, it assigned the task of preserving international political order, not to a coherent group of countries with common values and similar political systems, but to a pentarchy of permanent veto powers whose divided attachments to capitalism and communism, democracy and totalitarianism, proved to be a recipe for paralysis and ineffectiveness. Moreover, in the Security Council privilege was poorly correlated with power, as membership in the victorious wartime coalition gave the United Kingdom, France and China rights and responsibilities well beyond their capacity to contribute to the collective task. And in the reigning institutions of the UN economic system -- the IMF and the World Bank -- the United States received unique privileges that its wealth at the time justified, but that its declining power has rendered increasingly inappropriate with each passing decade.

The second wave of postwar international institution-building was designed to cope with the crisis of the cold war that crippled the core of the UN system so soon after its creation. It consisted of the array of more restricted, Atlantic-centered, multilateral institutions that began with NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT], and continued with the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation and its successor, the OECD, and the International Energy Agency [IEA]. As a successor or supplement to the UN system, this Atlantic network sacrificed breadth of membership and accumulation of maximum capability, in order to secure commonality of purpose against the security threat on a single, vital, regional front. With six of the seven summit country participants members of NATO and the IEA, and with all seven country summiteers members of the GATT and OECD, Atlanticism remains a considerable force in world affairs. Yet the addition of large numbers of small and middle powers has contributed far more political diversity and disagreement than needed capability, and has inhibited the ease and speed of making and enforcing required decisions. Moreover the absence of Japan from NATO and France from the IEA have been increasingly costly omissions, as the threats to western security have expanded well beyond Europe, have grown to embrace more than military and associated political challenges, and increasingly have required the rapidly rising power of Japan in response.[10]

The third wave of international institution-building, centered in the summit system, was called into being by the inability of the established UN and Atlantic networks to cope with the cascading crises of the early 1970s. The failure of the IMF to deal with the collapse of the Bretton Woods international monetary regime in 1971, the failure of the Atlantic institutions to respond effectively to the Mid-East oil and political shocks of 1973, and the failure of the UN system to prevent the Indian nuclear explosion and respond to the demands for a New International Economic Order in 1974 dramatically demonstrated the need for a new forum for organizing the increasingly beleaguered industrial democracies of the North and replacing the old order they had created with a fundamentally reformed successor. The seven-power summit represented a unique effort to combine the new powers that counted to provide political leadership at the highest level to an international political and economic system that seemed to be out of control. Taken together, the countries of the summit command well over half of the world's gross national product and control a lesser but still decisive share of the world's modern military might. With the presence of the European Community, they represent an overwhelming majority of the population of the world's industrialized North. The summit also provides a central, comprehensive forum to consider and cope with the major challenges of the global system as a whole because of the rich array of special relationships and institutional affiliations that its member countries have with the countries of the East and South. And with membership limited to the same major industrial democracies, of whatever internal political complexion and ideology, this forum combines commonality of purpose with diversity of political debate. Moreover, the combination of limited membership, common political and economic systems, and vigorous disagreement about what to do also leads to a rare ease and effectiveness in decision-making and provides some protection for minority opinion in a consensus-oriented forum. Nowhere else in the current international institutional firmament is there such an accessible concentration of commonality, coherence and decisive capability.

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