Will the G-8 summit in Kananaskis in June be a beginning of the end for global summitry, or could it mark a new beginning? The answer, if indeed it can be found, requires an examination of the purpose of the summit and its evolution over the years.
The creation of the G-7 in 1975 seemed to run counter to the so-called realist school of international relations that hegemony is necessary to build institutions for the attainment of a global public good, because only the dominant power has an incentive to accept the inevitable short-run costs to achieve the long-run gains which are in their national interest.
Thus, Bretton Woods, the GATT, the Marshall Plan and the United Nations were the products of American leadership, although the British did play a role at Bretton Woods. The U.S. accepted the costs of the Marshall Plan because it was judged that global stability would greatly benefit American industry and society.
But, by the 1970s, the erosion of America's overwhelming hegemony had begun. The reconstruction of Europe and Japan, the technology transfer and investment encouraged by the Marshall Plan, and liberalization of trade under the GATT, dramatically narrowed the post-war gap in real per-capita output among OECD countries. This was an unwelcome surprise to many Americans.
Further, the erosion of American power created a vacuum in global co-operation and represented a serious threat to stability. The threat became much clearer as the Bretton Woods system collapsed in 1971 and a new "non-system" of floating exchange rates emerged in 1973.
Finally, the first OPEC oil crisis of 1973-74 triggered action -- the creation in 1975 of a new institution, the Economic Summit, at the initiative of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, president of France, and Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of Germany.
These meetings -- held in the library of the White House -- were small, informal and secret. The intent of the summit's founders was to replicate this template as much as possible and to prevent any bureaucratization of the institution. The objectives were also limited. Political or security issues were not part of the agenda. These were the domain of NATO.
One could argue that the creation of the G-7 was a unique event, dictated by the circumstances of the 1970s, which allowed two middle powers, led by former finance ministers, both highly experienced and forceful personalities, to undertake a major initiative when the U.S. was mired in Vietnam.
In highlighting the evolution of the summit over the past three decades there are continuing, if increasingly faint, echoes of its Library Group vision. One could describe it as minimalist chic. No bureaucratization and collegial, informal discussion among heads of government designed to foster domestic policy co-operation to achieve limited objectives. But a brief history of summitry amply demonstrates what is sometimes called "mission creep."
In the early years, from 1975 to 1980, while the summit did focus on basic economic issues, it was the only forum available for crisis management. It demonstrated its strategic advantage over the large international institutions in flexibility. Because of the OPEC shock, energy was on the table from the outset, as was trade.
During the 1980s, the approach was "get your own house in order."
A major change was the move from economic into political issues, a priority for U.S. president Ronald Reagan as the Cold War heated up. The 1983 Williamsburg Summit, preceded by Reagan's famous "evil empire" speech, was the first which included East-West security issues. But traditional issues such as trade and macroeconomic issues, especially inflation fighting, were also prominent.
In addition, relations with developing countries first appeared in Venice, in 1980; environment and manned space stations in London in 1984; co-operation in science and technology in Bonn in 1985; terrorism, hijacking and drugs in Tokyo the following year.
Mission creep had begun, communiques grew longer and political annexes were issued. Finally, an important institutional change was made in Tokyo, in 1986 -- the creation of a new summit forum, the G-7 finance ministers. This gradually reduced the role of the summit itself in macroeconomic co-operation and international finance. Finance ministers and central bank governors were now the main players in the policy domain for which the summit had been created.
This important development illustrates the significance of personalities and the episodic nature of the summit: By 1982, no head of government had ever been a finance minister and the Library Group vision had faded. But not entirely. Minimalism was still considered chic, as some institutional innovations in the 1990s illustrate.
During the first half of the 1990s, the summits were dominated by the end of the Cold War and the reform and marketization process in the former Soviet empire.
At the Halifax Summit, institutional reform of the international financial system was launched and this became an ongoing subject because of the Asian crisis. Mission creep accelerated with the number and length of non-economic documents steadily increasing.
An effort was made by Britain's John Major in the London summit in 1991 to stem the paper tidal wave (with limited success) and after Munich, 1992, Major proposed to his colleagues that leaders should meet alone without any ministers attending. At the Birmingham summit in 1998, Major's successor, Tony Blair, implemented this proposed reform.
But the paper output and the agenda expansion continued.
In Okinawa, 2000, the summit communique was accompanied by 30 pages of other documents and in Genoa, 2001, this had expanded to 47 pages. The list of agenda items is also insightful. In Okinawa, these included: financial architecture, money laundering, debt relief and development, information and communications technology, health, trade, an item called "Deeper Peace of Mind" which involved crime, food safety and the human genome, and the environment.
While the G-7 had officially become the G-8 in Birmingham, the G-7 still has a separate existence and issues "statements" without the G-8 logo imprinted on the communique. And while ministers were excluded from summit sessions, there were regular meetings before each summit. Indeed, more and more ministerial meetings.
The sporadic efforts to stem mission creep have not been successful.
While the summit now includes only leaders, the bureaucratization has been "downloaded" with multiple meetings of ministers and sous-sherpas that generate the paper. The new minimalism was largely a mirage. As new global issues emerge -- drugs, money laundering and terrorism -- leaders feel it essential to put them on the agenda, whether because of domestic concerns, or the media spotlight, or pressure from the international NGO networks. Or, indeed, all of the above since the forces are interrelated.
Many would argue that mission creep was inevitable. The Cold War is over and the former Soviet empire must be integrated into the global market economy. Deepening integration -- or globalization -- has exposed an array of "global bads." All these issues are extremely complex and defy neat, clear or short-term solutions.
So once on the agenda, they are unlikely to disappear. And "solutions" will often involve institutional reform -- likely a long and often contentious process as the initiative on the international financial system launched at Halifax so amply illustrates. And, it should be remembered, the summit is considered the only forum available for crisis management, whether it be the Russian economy, Kosovo or, as we will see at Kananaskis, the "new war."
In adopting an ever-expanding agenda, the summiteers were also inclined to -- or forced to -- include specific goals. Perhaps it was deemed necessary to do so to add to the gravitas of the institutional commitment, or to the credibility of the lengthy piles of paper. Or because it played well with the media's demand for policy by sound byte. But if the goals are unrealistic, this is a rather imprudent approach. (Recall World Bank president Robert MacNamara's pledge in 1973 to eradicate poverty by 2000!)
The goals for debt reduction of poor countries set at Cologne have not been met.
The ambitious development targets announced by the UN's Millennial Summit covering poverty, infant mortality and primary education seem, at present, most unlikely to be reached.
Rather than enhancing credibility, this mode of operation has led to an increasingly skeptical view of the institution. But added to these voices, of course, has been the often more raucous shouts of the non-government organizations (NGOs).
In 1998, at the Birmingham summit, 50,000 people demonstrated. The message was that the summit should commit to deliver complete debt forgiveness by 2000. The NGOs were mainly British development groups and Christian charities. For the most part, the protest was peaceful, although a small group of vandals did try to break some windows.
The results on debt relief which came out of Birmingham were disappointing, but the NGO network didn't give up. A new commitment was made at Cologne in 1999. It was not met at Okinawa in 2000. And by Genoa, the peaceful Birmingham demonstrations seemed a distant memory.
The Birmingham demos didn't get worldwide TV coverage. That was hardly true of the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle a few months later. The Seattle demonstrations have been called -- with a bit of hyperbole -- the big bang of the anti-globalization movement and the media provided non-stop coverage of the street theatre.
The same was true of the subsequent meetings of the IMF and the World Bank, the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City and the G-8 summit in Genoa where the violence was unprecedented and one demonstrator was killed.
While these networks are loosely knit coalitions of very disparate groups, an analysis of Seattle (in 1999), Washington, Bangkok and Prague (in 2000) and Quebec City (in 2001) show that a significant proportion are environmental, human and gender rights NGOs, and anti-poverty groups.
The G-8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 included these groups but also a number of left-wing political parties from Europe, an unknown number of anarchist groups known as the Black Bloc and neo-nazi groups now growing in Europe.
In Genoa, the Genoa Social Forum, in charge of co-ordinating the demonstrations and discussions, wasn't able to control the violence of extremist groups from both the left and right. Escalating violence generates the need for more policy security which encourages more violence among extremists and, of course, Genoa was hardly the end of the story.
It would be wrong to judge the impact of the anti-globalization movement on policy only by what one sees on CNN. The situation is far more complex and the "invisible" impact by some groups on, for example, the WTO via the dispute settlement mechanism may be more significant and long-lasting. Similarly, the impact of the campaign launched at Birmingham on debt relief can be clearly seen in the summit agendas at Genoa and Kananaskis.
While previous summits have been criticized in the press -- most recently Okinawa for the expenditure of $750 million on facilities -- the decibel level rose significantly after Genoa. The Financial Times was especially scathing with a lead editorial entitled "For slimmer and sporadic summits," on July 23, 2001. The editorial asserted that what was required was a "commitment to hold the next G-8 only when there is a burning topic to discuss."
But this is easier said than done, of course.
The G-7, still the core of the institution, reflects the world of 1975 and not the transformation of East Asia, the rise of China and the growing intensity of North-South issues in, for example, the WTO. The only change in summit membership since 1975 has been the inclusion of Russia.
The main argument for expansion is that the institution should include developing countries and reflect a better regional balance if it is to consider the major issues of a globalizing world. But would an expanded summit be able to foster consensus on key global issues or cope with unanticipated crises?
The centrepiece of the Kananaskis summit will be to reduce the marginalization of Africa. An African action plan is being prepared which will address a wide range of issues including peace and security, health, education, trade and investment, all essential to development.
Dealing with African marginalization is both praiseworthy and essential to the achievement of comprehensive global security. But, there's a problem. There's no agreement at present on financing.
While British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been campaigning for a new Marshall Plan for Africa, the U.S. has clearly indicated that its aid budget will be only marginally increased (mainly to deal with Afghanistan).
One can debate whether aid has been effective or not -- the U.S. argues that in the past much of it was wasted. But it's hard to believe that more financial assistance will not be crucial.
And if the U.S. won't play the game, will others go ahead anyway?
So what has all this got to do with summit reform? The summit was created by middle powers at a time when the hegemon was -- or appeared to be -- in decline. But the catalyst that sparked the change was crisis -- the breakdown of Bretton Woods and the onset of OPEC One.
There is a different kind of crisis facing the G-8 today.
The widening transatlantic divide on security and the concern about alleged American unilateralism could well represent a serious threat to global stability. The summit is the only forum that could deal with the complex global issues that will arise in this world of deepening integration and uncertainty. But the credibility of the summit has steadily diminished -- and given the centrepiece of Africa at Kananaskis, it's difficult to be hopeful about the outcome, even without considering Zimbabwe.
Thus, the need to severely cut back on the agenda; to establish credible and transparent follow-up mechanisms and to re-examine the structure and role of the G-8 has become even more urgent.
Surely it would be possible for a middle power to propose that a key agenda item for the next summit should be the reform of summitry. Other G-8 members would likely agree and even the hegemon is unlikely to object in principle but will wait until the drafting of the report begins. Then peer group pressure might be exercised. Even hegemons are susceptible to growing negative publicity about arrogance.
Sylvia Ostry is Distinguished Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies at the University of Toronto. She was formerly Canada's Chief Statistician, deputy minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, chairman of the Economic Council of Canada, deputy minister of International Trade, ambassador for Multilateral Trade Negotiations and the Prime Minister's personal representative for the Economic Summit.
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