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Revitalizing the G-7: Prospects for the 1998 Birmingham Summit of the Eight

by John Kirton and Ella Kokotsis

March 1998

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The Summit Process: Reform for Revitalization

By moving beyond the preoccupation with increasing Russian participation - a preoccupation that often dominated the past six summits - Birmingham should allow for genuine and badly needed innovation at the heart of the summit process. Indeed, Birmingham promises an important extension of the G-7's central strength, namely that it is an international institution with political control in the hands of popularly elected leaders. Its first achievement will be the long-desired leaders-only format that fully reflects the seminal instinct behind the G-7's creation. Although G-7 leaders originally wanted exclusive personal control of summits, the presence of finance and foreign ministers from other parties and factions in the formal and de facto coalition governments in Germany and Japan made that difficult. When coupled with a fear that leaders would lack the necessary expertise, this led finance and foreign ministers to accompany their leaders to the first summit at Rambouillet, France, in 1975 and to every subsequent summit since. Under the Birmingham format, pioneered by Blair and backed by the United States president, Bill Clinton, the ministers will meet in the host country the weekend before the summit. Discussions within national delegations should, if carefully managed, provide the necessary and timely political-level preparation and infusion of portfolio and coalition expertise into the leaders' deliberations. Left alone at the summit, the leaders would be free, indeed forced, to do what only they can do - lead in ways that transcend entrenched bureaucratic interests and that integrate partial portfolio concerns. There is much riding on the successful execution of this innovation, as imperfections could well lead the Germans and Japanese, who will probably still have their formal and de facto coalition governments in place when they host the summit in 1999 and 2000 respectively, to revert to the earlier model.

Consistent with the emphasis on a summit of and for leaders is the reduction in formality that will come with a summit staged around a leaders' retreat. The summit should begin with a dinner that will bathe Russia's President Yeltsin in splendour, unadulterated by the presence of any ministers tempted to remain for the photo-op. But after the ceremony, the leaders are slated to spend much of their remaining time together at an extended informal retreat outside Birmingham, where they will be accompanied by no more than five officials each. Such a format has long proven its value in the Commonwealth, la francophonie, and more recently in Asia-Pacific Economic Co- operation (APEC) meetings. All summit participants are now sufficiently familiar with each other and the summit process to make this type of minimalist setting work. Nonetheless, the meetings will have to have a focussed and firm chair. They will also have to make certain that no country imports excluded ministers in a "non-ministerial" capacity as part of its national delegation of five.

To maintain credibility in the absence of ministers at the leaders' meeting, a communiqué will have to be produced which genuinely reflects the discussion and which is thus shorter and more straightforward than the norm. While the leaders may issue statements to endorse decisions taken by their ministers, their own concluding communiqué should put them in a better position to achieve the important G-7 function of setting directions for the global community. It would also permit them to speak with authenticity and authority on crises - whether in Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, or Korea - which spring up on the eve of the summit. Unlike the separate opening statements in 1995 and 1996, however, these pronouncements would almost certainly have to be issued "at eight."

A further potential innovation is to involve the heads of the major international organizations directly in the G-7 or G-8 discussions at the ministerial or even leaders level. As part of their focus on the Asian financial issue, the leaders have to return to the issue of international financial institutional reform that was the focus of Halifax and to deal in tandem with the reform of international and national systems for supervising banks and other financial institutions. To ensure that the necessary expertise is immediately available to leaders and to facilitate a faithful and rapid implementation of decisions taken at Birmingham, it could be desirable to involve the heads of the relevant international organizations for a limited time at the core of the leaders discussions rather than at a post-summit lunch, as was the case at Lyon in 1996. The managing director of the IMF has the first claim to an invitation, but there are grounds, as at Lyon, for involving his counterparts from the World Bank (responsible for development finance), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (responsible for the Multilateral Agreement on Investment), and the WTO (responsible for trade in financial services). However, their presence might take attention away from media-hungry elected leaders and mesh poorly with the objectives of presenting Birmingham as a full and unadulterated G-8. One alternative is to have the heads of the relevant international organizations join G-7 finance ministers in London for their meeting the weekend before the summit. Whatever formula is finally found, improved co-operation among these institutions, a notable part of the Halifax consensus, remains an important objective and one that requires the G-7's practical support.

The possible replacement of national portfolio ministers with the unelected heads of the world's major international organizations at Birmingham would dilute rather than affirm the principle of political control. But with the popularly elected leaders firmly in control of the meeting, the new assemblage could respond to those who demand that the G-7 be more globally inclusive because non-member countries would be represented collectively through the heads of the multilateral organizations of which they are members. It would also mean a shift from national portfolio perspectives to an integrated global overview - a move that appropriately meets the crises of globalization, the emergence of transnational issues, and the internationalization of what were once domestic agendas. Having G-7 finance ministers meet with these leading international civil servants accomplishes many of these objectives, while ensuring that the summit itself is a forum purely for those with the legitimacy and sensitivity that democratic, popular election brings.

The success of a leaders-only summit depends on, and could give new life to, the formidable array of G-7 institutions at the ministerial and official level that have emerged to address the challenges of the 1990s. Indeed, a leaders-only summit depends on the evolving recognition and acceptance of the fact that the G-8 is not a single free-standing summit but a multilayered system of institutions with growing vertical and lateral logic and links. The earlier G-7 ministerial bodies for trade, finance, and foreign affairs were joined in the 1990s by those for environment (1992), for employment (1994), information (1995), terrorism and land transportation security (1995), crime (1997), embryonically, for small and medium- sized enterprises (1997), and energy (1998). A vast network of supporting and stand- alone G-7/G-8 working groups, from the level of deputy minister on down, has also been established.

This system of largely invisible G-7 governance has proved its worth, as is evident in the frenetic work of the G-7 finance deputies and their officials in late 1997 and early 1998 in response to the Asian financial crisis. However, this proliferating network could stand some selective strengthening and streamlining. It would be useful to add spring and summer meetings to the annual autumn foreign ministers' dinner at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly to provide the G-8 with a year- round capacity at the political level for rapid reaction and a systematic monitoring of the implementation of summit commitments. A second useful reform would be to secure more adequate managerial oversight of the network by giving the sous-sherpas and political directors clearer authority over and responsibility for subordinate bodies. A third reform would be to maintain the flexibility of the system by abolishing those bodies that have completed their catalytic purpose and whose results could best be implemented through established organizations. A current example could well be the G-8 Group of United Nations Directors which was valuable in following up the institutional reform agenda of Halifax by promoting United Nations reform, but whose agenda has now largely been exhausted.

Overall, when the summit's historic collective provision of leadership and policy direction is coupled with more recent innovations in agenda, membership, and format, the 1998 Birmingham summit of the eight promises to mark a new beginning for the G-7 and its revitalization as an institution looked to, and accepted as, the potential centre of global governance in the post-cold war globalizing era of the 1990s.

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