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The Seven-Power Summit as a New Security Institution

John Kirton

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Explaining the Summit's Success

In searching for relevance and a role within this dense pre-existing network of institutional collaborators and competitors, the nascent seven-power summit system was devoid of the standard array of assets possessed by international organizations: formal charters embedded in intergovernmental agreements, routine calls on significant national budgetary allocations, and a vast, dedicated international bureaucracy with a fixed secretariat and established support networks within the polities of its member states. What, then, accounts for the ability of the seven-power summit system to flourish for nearly two decades in an international institutional landscape dominated by much more venerable and apparently powerful galaxies of international institutions? Most scholars addressing this question have acknowledged the substantial and increasingly effective role the summit has played in managing international order. They have, however, offered a variety of conflicting explanations for the summit's effectiveness.

Despite the continuing scepticism of journalists, there is a consensus among scholarly observers on the performance of the summit as an international institution. The first generation of reflections on the summit, inspired primarily by the desultory record of the first half of the 1980s, converged on the view that the summit's ability to produce meaningful international policy coordination was at worst 'episodic' and 'random', and at best 'very mixed' or highly variable, with the meetings of the 1980s less successful than those of the 1970's.(4)While the summit system, in its seminal economic functions, was useful as an instrument of co-operation, it remained fragile as an instrument of co-ordination, and could be credited only with preventing the global economic situation from becoming worse than it did. (5) As a political institution for the overall management, or governance of the international system, it posed no threat to the communist East or developing South, or to the existing network of international institutions. Only an increased level of institutionalization in the summit would 'reduce the effectiveness of, and the interest in such bodies as the OECD or the IMF or others (even the Atlantic Alliance if political and strategic matters are increasingly dealt with)'. (6)

More recent studies, focusing on the experience of the later 1980s and early 1990s, have assigned the summit system a far more potent role. In its core economic functions of exchange-rate management and macro-economic policy co-ordination, analysts have conceded its ability to have a substantial impact on markets in ways both unfavourable and beneficial. (7) Those sensitive to the concerns of the South have asserted that the 'recent past has witnessed a major erosion of the authority of the multilateral institutions charged with the governance of the world economy' as 'key decisions, whether on the debt problem, the setting of international exchange rates or global macroeconomic policy coordination, are taken within a limited group of developed countries, the inner core of which consists of the G-5/G-7 countries.'(8) Most recently, it has been argued that the 'G-7-1/2' (i.e., the G-7 with partial Russian participation) has become the central forum for the overall political management of the post-cold-war era as 'neither the U.N. Security Council, NPU), nor the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) can offer similar scope in terms of including the key players, though they and other organizations drill continue to play important roles in certain issues'. (9)

Beneath this evolving and still-contested consensus about the summit's enhanced effectiveness, deep disagreements remain as to the causes of its success and the proper route to achieving improved performance. Those highlighting structural factors suggest that summit success reflects the need of the US for strong support from one other key country; or the need for the big three (the US, Germany, and Japan) to act jointly to ensure macroeconomic co-ordination; or the ability of five major powers (the G-5) to dominate the world economy; or the need to replace the leadership of a declining US with that of a collectivity of principal countries, including notably Japan. (10) Those emphasizing the institutional characteristics of the summit argue both that the flexibility of the heads to set their agenda and their freedom from bureaucratic constraints in arriving at agreements are responsible for the forums effectiveness, and, conversely, that this very informality, independence of major multilateral economic institutions, and lack of ongoing organizational support prevent the summit from achieving reliable policy co-ordination. (11)

Others offer explanations based on interdependence, suggesting that the new economic interdependence in the world economy in the 1970s, and political interdependence in the 1980s, required better mechanisms for collective management than the existing international institutions provided, especially at times of slowdown in the world economy, or when policy failures prompted dominant ideas to be replaced by economic ideologies focused on shared interests. (12) Finally, those favouring explanations grounded in domestic politics point to the willingness of the United States to lead, and the domestic bargaining and coalition-building that permit it to do so; national political pressures for strong personal forms of leadership; and the personalities of the leaders themselves. (13)

Building upon earlier analyses of the summit system s rising effectiveness as the central institution for managing world order, this chapter examines the reasons for the summit s predominance and assesses the institution s record to date. (14) It suggests that, in relation to the institutional galaxies of the alternative United Nations and Atlantic systems, the summit system has the advantage of a newly minted modernity that allows it to assemble the powers and address the policy areas that predominate in the world of the 1970s and onward, as opposed to those of the 1940s. More specifically, it argues that the system was created with, and has increasingly developed, a set of structural and institutional characteristics --those of an embryonic international concert-- that permit it to play a dynamic role as the leading international forum for shaping international order in general, and addressing the new global security agenda in particular.

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