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Bissell Paper Number Five
Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto
March, 1988

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I. Summits: The Framework:

The summit process is a reaction to the need for management. Until 1975 there was no forum, except the occasional major state funeral. where the Heads of State and Government of the industrial nations could meet together and jointly discuss issues that affected them all. There were, of course, opportunities to meet bilaterally. Also there existed institutions. most notably the GATT, the IMF and the OECD, where specific issues could be treated. And the Finance Ministers of the five major countries met on a fairly regular basis since April 1973 in the so-called Library Group, which later became the G-5 and is now the G-7.

Summits are not intended to replace the other fore. They are a complement. The forum recognizes that a number of issues now have three important characteristics.

Firstly, they cut across normal ministerial boundaries. Heads of State and Government can, for example, appreciate the interaction between macro-economic strategies, energy policy and international trade issues, or the impact on the world economic outlook of w hat is happening in the strategic field.

Secondly, these issues cut across the line drawn within an individual nation between domestic and foreign policy. Only Heads of State and Government have an equal responsibility for both.

Thirdly, these issues need to be treated at the highest political level. Finance Ministers. for example, are not in all countries directly elected officials.

Summits do not have a formal legal or institutional structure. There is no permanent secretariat. The preparation of the meetings is simply passed between host countries. But inevitably there has to be careful preparation and negotiation over possible results; and sometimes even over the precise wording of what will become the final communiques.

There is, however, an increasing ambiguity over whether Summits can or should come to any concrete decisions on particular issues. or whether they should only attempt to provide a forum for a joint discussion and sharing of opinions. Over a number of issues there seems to be a trend towards making more concrete decisions, but this then raises the question of how these should be followed up and enforced.

Ambiguities over spontaneity or advanced preparation. and over precise decisions or informal consensus are both the strength and weakness of the Summits. It is undoubtedly useful that the leaders of the most powerful countries, who increasingly see that their national sovereignty is questioned by the realities of interdependence, should get together and tall; about common issues. The question is not over the necessity of managing interdependence: it is over the methods for doing so. Inevitably over time the publicity surrounding summits has grown. Thousands of journalists turn them into a media circus, quite out of proportion to the concrete results achieved. It is not realistic to believe that this imbalance can be corrected by decreasing the media coverage. Heads of State and Government cannot -- even if they really desired it -- meet quietly and secretly. The imbalance must therefore be corrected either by abandoning the attempt, or by adapting the process so that the results are more clearly in line with expectations.

There exists a growing credibility gap. On the one hand the issues dealt with at summit meetings are becoming greater and more obvious, as well as directly affecting a larger and larger number of people. This is the inevitable consequence of interdependence. On the other hand, because it is extremely difficult to reach an agreement on the issues, the statements made in summit communiques have to be balanced to an extent that makes it possible for each participant to find in them something of his or her own starting position. Hence the communiques tend to be guarded and have only a limited operational content; it is not clear how they should be applied or in what way they are designed to be binding on the participating sovereign nations.

The Summits thus have two main advantages. The first lies in the behavioural constraint it creates on the participants. A Japanese friend says that summits are useful because bad boys cannot show up there. Ambassador Gotlieb correctly termed this "Peer group pressure".

The second main advantage of the Summit is that it is an occasion for making the international economy a political and widely debated topic. As Sylvia Ostry noted, the medium is more than the message.

The main disadvantage of the Summit is the discrepancy between, on the one hand press and public expectations and, on the other, a lack of concreteness in the outcome. Any advice on how to narrow this gap is most welcome!

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