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The Seven-Power Summit as a New Security Institution

John Kirton

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This analysis indeed suggests that as the summit has increasingly acquired the four central characteristics of a concert (concerted power, constricted participation, common purpose, and political control) it has developed greater institutional depth, policy breadth, and authoritative reach. These developments have been particularly pronounced during the third summit cycle, from 1989 onward, when rapid shifts in relative capability in the international system (notably the demise of the Soviet Union and diminution in capability of Russia, and the expansion of Germany with unification) have greatly enhanced the summit's structural character as a concert (concerted power), while eroding that of the United Nations Security Council and the seminal common purpose of NATO (directed at the powerful Soviet-led threat of communist expansion). Long before this decisive shift in relative capability in the international system, however, the institutional characteristic of the summit as a body personally managed by heads of state and government (political control) had given it a role in major global political and security issues, with the flexibility to respond in a timely way to new and emerging security challenges.

Indications of increasing institutional depth, policy breadth, and frequency of instructions to international institutions do not, in themselves, constitute conclusive evidence of implementative effectiveness. While it is unlikely that summit leaders would continue to give so many instructions, so publicly, to international institutions if these had proven to be ineffective (and hence embarrassing), specific case studies are required to confirm directly that summit agreements have led national governments and international organizations to adjust in the ways specified and to implement summit-designed agreements in ways that have a discernible and durable impact.

The existing case-study literature provides a firm foundation for this work. From the security-related but ultimately economic issue area of oil to the new security area of the environment, there is substantial evidence that the summit's members adjust their behaviour on important issues, against previously held preferences, in response to the dynamics of the summit process and in accordance with summit agreements. (23) Moreover, this process of adjustment takes place on the part of the summit's most powerful member, the United States, as well as its weakest, Canada (if less frequently). Indeed, Canadian leaders have implemented their summit agreements even at the cost of electoral defeat, as in 1978 and 1979 over fiscal deficit reduction and increased gasoline taxes, and have responded to summit discussions by abandoning major initiatives in diplomacy and energy, and by beginning new ones in trade policy. (24)

What remains for further research is a disciplined set of case studies, including the new security areas of terrorism, the environment, narcotics, and AIDS, that demonstrates how, across issue areas, the summit system's characteristics as a concert have increased its institutional depth, policy breadth, and authoritative reach, to the point where it has replaced the United Nations and Atlantic systems as the predominant institution for international security governance.

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