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The Significance of the Seven-Power Summit

John Kirton

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Producing the Summit Documents

The documents in this collection, which record the results of these efforts, come in four classes, each with its own distinctive significance and contribution in the complex summit constellation. Heading the hierarchy is the formal communiqu‚, often referred to as a "declaration", read by the host with regal ceremony at the conclusion of each summit, as his or her colleagues sit assembled on stage. These texts are the scriptures of the summit, the central achievement whose creation consumes much of the summit preparatory activity during the preceding year.

The production of this communiqu‚ characteristically begins the previous autumn, when the sherpas first meet to share insights about the political priorities and constraints their leaders face. Once the range of the politically possible is defined, the sherpas at their second meeting in early winter usually discuss the general structure and likely agenda of the summit that year. The third sherpa meeting, held about two months later, addresses the specifics of what the leaders will discuss and what the communiqu‚ might say. The fourth sherpa meeting, which takes place within the month prior to the summit, tends to focus on the more precise language of the "thematic paper" which is, in effect, a draft communiqu‚ that increasingly guides and is shaped by the sherpas' deliberations throughout the first half of the summit year.

From the night prior to the summit to the morning of the last day, the sherpas are constantly working at the side of their leaders or among themselves to advise the heads of their delegations, carry out the heads' instructions and ensure that the final version of the communiqu‚ will reflect the consensus that the leaders themselves create during their three days together. During the second night of the summit the sherpas may meet to prepare an almost final draft. Sometimes the finance sous-sherpas assist by drafting specific references on matters such as exchange rates, for review by finance ministers, before the sherpas take them up. Although these passages usually prevail, some sherpas, ever jealous of their prerogatives, insist they have no status and treat them with cavalier disregard. The grand finale for the sherpas comes the night before the final day of the summit when, perhaps aided by their political directors, they labor through the night to produce the document which the leaders will approve in the morning and the host will read in the afternoon. Because this is genuinely a document of the heads themselves, the sherpas end their sometimes sleepless night by referring all remaining disagreements, carefully ensconced in square brackets in the draft text, to the leaders, for resolution at their final meetings. It is hardly surprising that in this process the English language sometimes gets mangled, or that precise commitments about national responsibilities or particular programs get relegated to an appendix.

Ranking second in the hierarchy of summit scripture is the political declaration, which sometimes appears in plural form. This now standard feature of a summit's paper product is still a contribution that is somewhat in dispute. Led by the French prior to the 1989 Paris summit, there are some who claim that the summit is, or should be, an economic forum, where the "high" political issues of global peace and security have no place. This doctrine rides roughshod over several realities -- that some summits have made their greatest contribution in the realm of high politics, that the most important political issues of the moment naturally demand the attention of the most powerful leaders of the most powerful States, and that most elected heads of government, along with their citizens, are much more comfortable talking about politics than about the dismal technical details of exchange rate reference zones, schemes for macroeconomic policy performance surveillance and the like. Thus, the leaders have talked about high politics since the first summit. And, to avoid damaging speculation about what they have talked about and to signal their agreement to allies and adversaries on the outside, they have since 1978 issued at least one statement about the political subjects they have discussed.

In order to preserve the economic nature of the communiqu‚, these political statements have been issued as separate documents. They have covered a variety of topics, have been issued as one or several statements, and have appeared under a variety of titles. But they generally remain faithful to the core consensus that the summit's political communiqu‚ ought to deal principally with the great issues of East-West relations (including the legacy of the Second World War and the front-line powder keg of the Middle East) and threats to the states system and its great-power protectors themselves.

To produce these political statements, the sherpas share their table with the political directors -- a group composed of the most senior foreign ministry official responsible for global political affairs in each member government. Because it must often reflect the fast-moving political situation of the moment, the preparation of the political statement begins much later in the annual summit cycle than that of the communiqu‚ itself. Typically the political directors join the sherpas at their fourth meeting, and bring with them a draft political declaration they have prepared among themselves. Given traditional French ambivalence about the role of political items in the summit, and the desire of sherpas to retain control of the summit preparation process in the face of foreign ministry officials, there is a recent tradition of the sherpas discarding the political directors' proposed document and starting the drafting process anew. The political directors, however, tend to gain the upper hand at the summit itself, when it is they, rather than the communiqu‚-preoccupied sherpas, who in practice have the most to contribute to the jointly-drafted final text.

To cope with other political issues, such as regional security, and other matters where the great-power plutocrats have more particular interests and a greater propensity to disagree, there has evolved, over the years of the summit, a third class of documents: the chairman's summary, delivered by the host head at the end of the summit as an additional indication of what was discussed or agreed. Chairmen's summaries come in several forms. They may be oral statements (transcribed by those in attendance) or previously prepared written documents. Moreover, they may be merely the unilateral impressions of the host, or may be a collective statement agreed upon by all the heads prior to their release.

Professional diplomats struggling to save face for their leaders or to secure collective legitimization for their prized issues tend to see substantial significance in the particular form the summary takes, or whether an item gets into only the summary rather than the political declaration or the communiqu‚ itself. But to the media army waiting impatiently outside for any scrap of news to feed to their expensive satellites hovering hungrily above, the particular title on the piece of paper matters much less. Their interpretation is, from a practical political standpoint, a reasonable one, because such summaries are prepared and issued by the host head (with the assistance of his or her sherpa). It is the host head who has a primus inter pares status, reflecting the fact that it is ultimately his or her summit and that it is his or her responsibility to see that all goes well. At the Toronto summit in 1988, the traditional chairman's summary was dispensed with in favor of an agreed statement from the foreign ministers that was approved by the heads. This process resulted in a document that appeared almost as weighty as the political declaration itself.

These prerogatives of the host head of government have given rise to a fourth class of documents: the press releases or press briefings that the host head may provide throughout the summit itself. The three-day event is, of course, a frenzy of competitive briefings, as the sherpas, ministers, officials and press spokespersons of each delegation struggle to get out the version of what went on that is most favorable to them. But in this process the words of the host leader have a special status. Given the ultimate responsibility of the host to ensure that none of his or her colleagues lose face at a summit, a well-timed press statement on an issue that the leaders refused collectively to endorse can help a friend whose help will in turn be needed in future years. He can also begin, in however fragile a manner, the process where issues become legitimized and perhaps, eventually, decisively dealt with by the summit itself in future years.

The overall importance and different classes of these documents reflect in part the status of the various participants in the summit. Because each summit involves not only the country's head of state or government, but its foreign minister and finance minister as well, it assembles a uniquely powerful combination of politicians and portfolios from the great ministries of state, unmatched by any other international institution or regular summit forum. Beyond this general formula for participation, however, the actual composition of national delegations is a striking testament to the diversity of political conditions and governmental structures in the member countries, and the resilience of the summit forum in adapting to their needs. Thus the European Community sends as a "head" every year the President of the Commission headquartered in Brussels. But it also sends the President of its Council in those years when the Community presidency is held by a member whose head is not already at the summit as the leader of a member country. The French have also participated in a formula for a two-headed delegation. For in the years of domestic political "co-habitation" between socialist President Fran‡ois Mitterrand and center-right Prime Minister Jacques Chirac both leaders would represent France at the summit, with the latter taking the seat otherwise occupied by the French Minister of Finance. The fraternity of ministers has, however, had some compensation. For not only were the summit's founders recreating as heads a forum they had enjoyed so much when they were finance ministers themselves, but in 1980, when an untimely death deprived the Japanese delegation of their Prime Minister, their Foreign Minister substituted at the summit as the Japanese head.

The claims of the European Community and the French to occasional double representation at the top has helped Germany use the formula to good effect at the ministerial level, where the Germans have enjoyed an extra seat every year. Because Germany routinely has a coalition government in which the Free Democratic Party (FPD) is the constant element, that country sends to the summit not only its Finance Minister, who comes from the larger coalition partner, but also its Minister of Economics, who represents the FPD in this domain. Nor is it conceivable that this extra economic minister would lead the summiteers to ask, under the principle of equality and substitution, that the other German minister stay at home. For he, in the person of Hans-Dietrich Genscher, is a summit legend, and a personal repository of its institutional memory, having been at every summit in the fifteen-year history of the event. The Japanese have also followed the German precedent, by sending their Minister of International Trade and Industry to the finance ministers' summit conclaves. But even with these modifications, the summit remains one of the world's most exclusive clubs.

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