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The Seven-Power Summit as a New Security Institution

John Kirton

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The Summit as an International Institution

Although the summit has remained a heads-directed institution devoid of a supporting international organization, it has over the years developed a considerable institutional capacity through downwardly and outwardly linked systems of subordinate institutions and networks. This development has been propelled by the increase in relative power as well as the demand of the outer tier of major powers Japan, Germany, Italy, and Canada) who have been most disenfranchised by the old international institutional security systems centred in the UN Security Council and (Germany apart) NATO's 'Berlin Dinner'.(18) The same countries were responsible for the triumph of a concert-based conception of the summit's role, centred on the recognition of a decline in American primacy and a consequent diffusion of power.

From its inception, the seven-power summit was inspired by two competing conceptions of what type of institution it should become. The Franco-German, or 'librarian' conception -- put forward by Valery Giscard D'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt on the basis of their experience as finance ministers in the 'Library Group' -- conceived of the summit as a one-time or occasional event, with very limited participation and little publicity, focused on the expert-driven economic issues of exchange rates and macroeconomic policy co-ordination. By contrast, the American or trilateralist conception -- pioneered by Henry Kissinger on the basis of his concept of pentarchy, and his frustrated Year of Europe and new Atlantic Charter initiative -- envisioned an ongoing institution, with somewhat broader participation and publicity, dealing with the major political issues of the day. From the start, the American conception prevailed, for even before the Rambouillet summit of 15-17 November 1975, Canada received a promise from the US that it would host a second summit, to which Canada would be invited.

Thus the two-day summit held in Puerto Rico on 27-28 June 1976 saw the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy joined by Canada. The two-day summit held in London 7-8 May 1977 saw the European Community added in the person of the president of the Commission. The Bonn summit of 16-17 July 1978, the Tokyo summit of 28-29 June 1979, the Venice summit of 22- 23 June 1980, and the Ottawa summit of 20-21 July 1981 confirmed the pattern of an institution with eight participant heads meeting annually for two days, in May, June, or July, with a rotating host and location (the pattern generally reflecting the relative power and historic position and participation of members in the international system). The first round also saw the emergence, as part of the preparatory process, of a series of bilateral summits by the host with all summit participants, in the months immediately preceding the event itself.

The second round of summitry brought further institutional development as the summit expanded into a three-day affair, in May or June, with an occasional additional head from the European Community. Thus in addition to the president of the Commission, the president of the European Council attended when he came from a country that was not a regular summit participant. He thus attended the Versailles summit of 4-6 June 1982, was absent from the Williamsburg summit of 28-30 May 1983, the London summit of 7-9 June 1984, and the Bonn summit of 2-4 May 1985, but returned for the Tokyo summit of 4-6 May 1986, and the Venice summit of 8-lO June 1987, and was absent for the Toronto summit of 19-21 June 1988. The second round of summitry also heralded the start of additional ad hoc meetings of the summit heads, as six (the seven minus France) met in New York, at Ronald Reagan's invitation, to provide the US president with advice prior to his 1985 visit to Mikhail Gorbachev -- the visit that marked the start of intense institutionalized superpower summitry in the modern period.

The third round of summitry maintained the three-day, eight- or nine-participant pattern, but fixed the summit date far more precisely in mid-July. More important, it was with the third round that other non-member heads began attending, or participating in, the summit, stimulating a further institutionalization of the status of the sub-unit as a collective entity, and the role of the host as chair. Thus the Paris summit was graced by several Third World heads who were invited by summit host Francois Mitterrand for a separate meeting immediately before the opening of the seven-power event. These Third World heads issued an appeal for assistance to the summit leaders on 13 July, and shared a dinner with them that evening. When a second appeal for assistance to the Paris summit seven came, midway through their meeting, from Gorbachev, it was decided that a collective response would be delivered by Mitterrand, as summit host. At Houston the following year it was agreed that the host would communicate the results of the summit personally to Gorbachev in a follow-up visit. And at London in 1991 the summit principals agreed to meet collectively with the Soviet leader in London on the afternoon following the conclusion of the summit itself. (This formula was repeated the following year at Munich with Russian President Boris Yeltsin). Arrangements for follow-up meetings with Gorbachev on behalf of the summit codified an arrangement in which the current summit's host held that position until the end of the calendar year, at which time the next summer's host took over. The London meeting also introduced the possibility of a second (and this time full and formal) ad hoc summit, as host Prime Minister John Major noted in his concluding press conference that he would be prepared to call the heads together should a successful conclusion to the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations not be reached.

From the beginning the heads were accompanied at their annual summit by their foreign and finance ministers. At the Bonn summit of 1978 the Germans added their minister of economics, who returned for all subsequent summits. At the inception of the second round in 1982 the Japanese brought their minister of international trade and industry, who returned for the 1983, 1986, and all subsequent summits. At the start of the third round in Paris in 1989 the Americans brought the administrator of their Environmental Protection Agency, and had their secretary of agriculture and trade representative in attendance at Houston the following year.

During the second round of the summit, first the trade, then the foreign, and finally the finance ministers of the seven began meeting apart from the annual gathering of the heads. Since a January 1982 meeting held under an American chair, the trade ministers have met two or three times a year in the 'Quadrilateral' (so called because it includes the United States, Canada, Japan, and the European Community representing all the European participants). Starting in September 1984 the G-7 foreign ministers have met annually on the margins of the autumn opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The Tokyo summit of 1986 created a Group of Seven finance ministers (the seven without the European Community, which had no competence in this field), a body that met in parallel with the pre-existing Group of Five but soon came to supersede it. (19) Following the London summit of 1991, the summit's finance ministers and ministers responsible for small business were also dispatched, in their summit capacity, on missions to the Soviet Union. And the summit seven environment ministers met as a group both before and at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in June 1992.

By the third round, there were signs that this separate ministerial structure too was giving rise to separate meetings among subordinate officials. During the Gulf War, the political directors (usually the senior officials responsible for international security in the foreign ministry) met in Rome on 4 November 1990, without the French (who were, by prior arrangement, briefed immediately after). And on 6 November 1991 the G-7 deputy ministers (of finance and treasuries), who had been gathering separately for several years on their core macro- economic agenda, met in Paris to discuss assistance to the expiring Soviet Union.

Over time, and with a growing frequency in recent years, the annual summit has also bred a plethora of official-level groups, both ongoing and temporary, some including summit members only, some expanding to include outsiders as well. Similarly, the task of preparing the summit -- entrusted from the start not to the regular national bureaucracy but to a leader's personal representative, or 'sherpa' -- has expanded to a multilayered team of ‘sous- sherpas' (one each from the foreign and finance ministries), 'sous-sous sherpas', and political directors, who since the preparations for the 1990 Houston summit have acquired an enlarged and separate role. (20)

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