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The Seven-Power Summit as a New Security Institution

John Kirton

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The Summit as an International Concert: Implications for Effectiveness

Management of the security agenda -- old, new, and emerging -- has long been the business of the major institutional systems for governing world politics, notably the broadly universal United Nations, the multilateral Atlantic of institutions (occasionally with its minority of extraregional members), and, more recently, the plurilateral summit system of the seven mayor industrial democracies and the European Community. These three institutional systems differ not only in the number and geographic reach of the members they embrace, but, equally important, in the historic principles of international organization that they each -- in improved modern versions -- represent. Thus the United Nations embodies the collective-security principle manifest in the League of Nations; the Atlantic family, the collective-defence principle at the core of the dual-entente and triple-alliance systems of the early 1900s; and the seven-power summit system, the concert principle embedded in the Concert of Europe that, for at least half a century following its creation in 1818, prevented general war in the global (if Euro-centric) systems. (15)

It is the summit system's character as a contemporary international concert that has given It an increasingly central role in the efficacious management of the international security order. (16) This process has unfolded with growing force, as shifts in relative capability among the major powers since 1975 have increasingly made a concert system the most effective means for shaping international order, and have increasingly concentrated capability within the particular powers represented in the summit. More specifically, the latter's increasing centrality has flowed from its four particular characteristics as a concert system: (1) its concentration of power; (2) its compression of participation; (3) its commonality of purpose; and (4) its political control by heads of state and government.

The first and most fundamental of these features is the structural concentration of power. In comparing the performances of the UN, Atlantic, and summit systems on this criterion, it is important to note that each of the three systems, new and old, is in practice dominated by an inner group, or directorate, of leading countries. In the case of the UN system, this group is formally established, consisting of the five permanent members of the Security Council with individual veto power: the US, the UK, France, Russia and China. In the case of the Atlantic system, it is the 'Berlin Dinner' four the US, the UK, France, and Germany. For the summit system it is the seven major powers (the full membership except for the European Community which claims and is accorded little competence in the security field): the US the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada.

Assuming that the international security order is most effectively guaranteed by a group representing the maximum and at least over fifty per cent of capability m the international system, the effects of these variations in management membership are clear. While all three international institutional systems share the same common core of the US, Britain, and France, the UN system uniquely adds the capability of the USSR (since 1992, Russia) and since the 1970s, the People's Republic of China. NATO adds the capability of Germany. The seven-power summit adds the capabilities of Japan, Germany, Italy, and Canada. In 1975, at the inception of the summit, it was clear that the United Nations had a significant advantage in security-relevant capability, given the post-Vietnam, pre-Afghanistan relative strength of the USSR, the recent addition of the real China, the absence of East Germany from NATO and the summit, and the absence of Canada from the summit. By 1992, however, the balance-of-capability advantage had shifted strongly to the summit, with the disappearance of the USSR and its replacement by a much weaker Russia, the post-Tiananmen isolation of China, the unification of Germany, and the rapid relative-capability growth of Germany, Italy (which overtook Britain in GNP), Canada, and, above all,Japan. (17)

Although the Russia-China combination still wields superior capabilities to those of the Germany-Italy-Canada-Japan combination in some areas of the traditional security agenda (notably, in-place deliverable nuclear weapons, and size if not protectability of standing armies), the latter combination represents vastly superior capability both overall and in the specialized areas most relevant to the new security agenda of the 1990s. This advantage will only increase if and as Russia continues to associate itself with the summit, and as its relative capability declines. It will be eroded only in the unlikely event that reform of the Security Council brings Japan, Germany, and possibly Italy (perhaps in the name of a European Community seat) onto that body as permanent veto powers, or if Russia and Japan associate themselves with NATO.

This concentration of power has several effects on the capacities of the institution in which it is embedded. First, that institution's preponderance of power helps ensure the effective implementation of any agreements throughout the international system as a whole (both by mobilizing the resources and by ensuring policy adjustments on the part of actors required to realize them). Second, it reduces the probability that any major powers will be left outside, and discourages those that are from developing a rival institutional system of remotely comparable capability and influence. Third, its preponderance of power induces members and outsiders alike to bring their agenda items and appeals to the institution itself, in the knowledge that this is the locus of the resources required to deal with them.

The second fundamental structural feature of the summit as concert is the compression of its core participants. The deployment of overall capability, however overwhelming, by international management groups depends critically on their ability to mobilize for timely and decisive action. Such mobilization is relatively easy in a group in which a single country, or smaller group of countries, has sufficiently superior capabilities to dominate. In a unit- veto system (which the Security Council always was, and which NATO and the summit have become), this mobilization depends in part on the reduction of potential veto points through the compression of participation to the lowest possible number of participants.

Here NATO with four and the UN with five have a narrow advantage over the summit's seven members. Such an advantage would assume significance should the additional capability represented by Japan, Italy, and Canada be more than offset by the net effect that these participants have in delaying or preventing summit action and consensus. It would assume further significance should the United Nations, or NATO, be more able than the summit to mobilize the reserve capability from the larger membership within the institutional system. Here the summit -- with only one additional participant to mobilize to secure the capability of the full European Community -- has a decisive advantage over NATO, which requires eleven additional participants to secure a broadly equal capability increment. It has a similar advantage over the UN where, among both the non-permanent Security Council members and the full membership, the number of additional participants outweighs the aggregate capability they bring.

The compression of participants (particularly through the 'major powers only' principle, which generates effective equality among them) increases institutional effectiveness in several ways. By reducing potential veto points and transaction costs, it enhances the prospect of arriving at agreements. Moreover, by reducing the obstacles to transparency, it increases the prospect that these agreements will be followed by agreed-to and appropriate action. Finally, the effective equality and collective predominance of the group's members increase the probability that each major member (including the most powerful, the US), as well as outside countries and international organizations, will adjust in ways that the agreements specify.

The third fundamental feature of the summit as concert is the common purpose of its members. At a minimum, the common characteristic of participants as major powers gives the concert a shared interest in preserving the existing order (which has enabled them to become or remain major powers) from new shocks. More ambitiously, the shared character of summit members as developed, capitalist, industrial, and open economies generates a common set of concerns, experiences, and interdependencies with the other members. Most ambitiously, their shared character as democracies, each with an open, multi-party electoral system that causes heads of state and government, and at some time governing parties, to change, generates a shared set of political values that extends this commonality into the security realm.

The transformation of the mobilizable capability that flows from concentrated power and constricted participation into actually mobilized capability depends on the likelihood that the participants, even with minimal veto points and transaction costs, will find common cause in setting an agenda, arriving at agreements, taking action, and adjusting to the consensus. Here the summit has two decisive advantages over its UN and NATO counterparts in going beyond the conservatively oriented minimum order represented by the maintenance of the status quo. These additional advantages are of particular importance at times when a rapid change in relative capability across, and alignment processes among, the major powers generates a need to revise or even transform the existing order.

In the economic domain, the uniformly high level of development and particularly the industrialized (rather than resource-based) character of all summit participants stands in sharp contrast to the ranges represented in both NATO (with Turkey) and the United Nations Security Council (with China). In the political domain, the uniformly democratic character of the summit's participants (all of whom have multiparty systems and open elections) stands in even starker contrast to the historic full NATO (with Portugal and Turkey), and the United Nations Security Council (with a still unrepentently communist and authoritarian China). Only in very specialized traditional security fields do common national attributes give the advantage to the UN Security Council (all of whose members, for example, have autonomous nuclear weapons, and are the world's major arms exporters). Moreover, because the summit's dominant members have often been of a similar political colouration (the liberal majorities of the 1970s and conservative majorities of the 1980s, with France as the counter-cyclical power throughout), they have found it even easier to agree on a common programme than have the summit's competitors (where the Anglo- American versus French party-in-power polarization lacks the common swing coalition of Germany and Canada to provide a clear majoritarian philosophy).

The effects of such multilayered commonality are clear. They make it much more likely that the summit will be able to agree on a common agenda, reach substantive agreement, and implement appropriate action. Such tendencies should be most pronounced on issues related to the core commonalities of large capitalist, industrialized, open economies, and democratic polities.

The fourth feature of the summit as concert is its political control by heads of state and government. To transform mobilized preponderant capability into flexibly focused capability well tailored to meet the new challenges of the international system requires that international institutions be directed at the highest political level. It is here that the summit has its most decisive advantage. As formal international organizations, both the United Nations and the Atlantic system are confined by the functions and geographic domains specified in their founding charters, articles of agreement, or treaties. They are managed by officials and only occasionally by portfolio ministers. And they are largely dependent upon the resources available in their organizational budgets, staffs, headquarter organizations, and standard operating procedures. In contrast, the summit, as an informal international institution, is free to take up any subject its members can collectively agree upon. Because it is managed on an ongoing basis by heads of state and government, either directly or through personal representatives, rather than by subordinate ministers with functionally confined portfolios, its deliberations and decisions are not limited by the need to seek higher political approval (vertically) or the need to harmonize with other individuals responsible for related issue areas (horizontally). And precisely because the summit is directly controlled at the highest political level, with no international organizational capacity of its own, it can and must draw upon the full resources of its constituent national bureaucracies for preparation and implementation.

Over the years there has been some movement on the part of the United Nations and Atlantic systems to adopt the features and thus acquire the advantages of an institution controlled at the highest political level. However, these efforts have been for the most part recent, and they remain limited. The United Nations Security Council is not a body that meets at the level of head of state and government. Nor do the results of its first-ever summit, in January 1992, suggest it will do so regularly in the future. Moreover, despite some recent seven-power-summit-inspired shifts (such as the autumn 1990 World Summit on Children and, perhaps, the June 1992 United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development), the full United Nations shares this tradition. Within NATO, only in the 1990s (beginning with the London summit of July 1990) has the recent tradition of summits every five years been replaced by an annual cycle (with the Rome summit of November 1991). In contrast, the seven-power summit system has since its inception centred on and been driven by the annual gathering of heads of state and government.

At the ministerial level, the United Nations system has featured annual meetings of foreign ministers, and twice-yearly meetings of finance ministers (IMF/IBRD [World Bank]), as well as regular gatherings of other ministers in the specialized portfolio relevant to the functional agencies. The Atlantic system has twice-yearly gatherings of foreign and defence (NATO), and finance (OECD) ministers. While the seven-power summit system is less extensive (including only foreign, finance, and trade ministers meeting once or more a year), it is the only integrated forum where foreign and finance ministers (the only two great internationally oriented ministries of state) annually meet together and do so in the presence of heads.

At the subministerial level there have been persistent suggestions that the summit should acquire its own supporting organization, beginning with a permanent secretariat. However, such pressures have been firmly resisted. Despite a proliferation of summit-created subordinate official-level bodies -- some ongoing, some transitory; some confined to summit members, some expanding to include non-members -- no intergovernmental organizational support mechanism of any kind has been established.

This unique combination of direct highest-level political control and freedom from formal organization endows the summit with four powerful advantages that render it particularly adept at dealing with new challenges to international order in a rapidly changing international system. First, it enables the summit to take the lead in international agenda-setting by immediately taking up and giving prominence to new issues, and by establishing new issue areas through the definition and legitimation of core logical linkages and ranges of acceptable considerations (eg., debt and democracy, trade and environment). This flexibility in agenda-setting extends to the geographic domain of institutional coverage, as reflected in the summit's movement into regional security issues on a global scale, in contrast to NATO's limited ability to deal with out-of-area issues. Second, the presence of heads increases the likelihood that agreements will be made, as there are no colleagues with cognate portfolios or superior authority in national governments with whose policies prospective agreements must be harmonized, or to whom such agreements must be referred. Third, the presence of heads increases the probability that the agreements reached will be implemented, since they are made personally by heads (who understand their spirit and letter) to fellow heads (with the equality of power to sanction defection), whom one knows one will meet face-to-face in a year's time -- electoral fortune permitting. Finally, the presence of heads facilitates the appropriate adjustments on national and international policy, as heads have the power to alter both the domestic and the foreign policies of their country, and ultimately to mobilize the resources required for these adjustments to be made.

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