Summits, as forms of international affairs management, have long existed (think of the Concert of Europe in the 19th century, major international peace or economic conferences in the first part of the 20th century for instance) but their breadth has vastly expanded in the last 40 years with growing interdependence between countries and across domains. During those years, summits went well beyond their historical role as catalysts or facilitators for major peace initiatives, expanding their reach into macroeconomic, environmental or social issues. In the absence of a world government, they now regularly serve to fulfil a range of functions such as launching new initiatives or providing guidance on world or regional political or economic affairs.
Illustrative of this trend, the G7/8 and G20 both originally aimed at addressing international economic difficulties, such as the stagflation that followed the oil crises in the 1970s for the G7 and the financial crisis in 2008 for the G20. This original aim is reflected in the economic weight of the groups’ members, totalling more than 50% of global net wealth for the G7 alone. But their purview has gradually expanded to cover major world issues that need the cooperation of major states to be addressed. Yearly meetings of the G7/8 or G20 are to be contrasted with meetings of the highest political bodies of many international organisations at the world or regional level, or with high-level conferences acting as agenda setters on important issues, such as the famous Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Unlike those examples, the G7/8 and G20 rely on few explicit processes and procedures and mostly consist of collections of bilateral meetings between members and a few plenary meetings. Until 2018, the end result of those meetings has been the public endorsement of a joint declaration detailing the rationale and substance for future actions in various other forums, in particular formal international organisations, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Health Organization (WHO) or the World Trade Organization (WTO) to name a few.
In 2018 in Quebec, Canada, the G7 meeting ended with the spectacular last-minute withdrawal of US President Trump’s support for the carefully negotiated joint declaration. It was a clear manifestation of the questioning of the key foundations of summitry in the last 40 years, namely the acceptance of multilateralism as a norm for international cooperation, the understanding that the nature of problems requires joint, coordinated action under some collective leadership, and the willingness to settle to some notion of diffused reciprocity – rather than strict reciprocity.
This evolution does not mean, however, that informal groups will disappear from the landscape of global governance. In contrast to formal international organisations that tend to exhibit strong inertia, informal groupings are quicker to react to challenges.
In the middle of the great financial crisis in 2008, the G20 was upgraded from a ministerial level to a head-of-state level to give more weight to concerted plans of actions and pledges to refrain from protectionist measures. The upgraded G20 then strengthened the existing Financial Stability Forum (FSF) and transformed it into the Financial Stability Board (FSB) to promote international financial stability. The G7 reacted to the 2018 failure by producing a much less ambitious declaration after its 2019 meeting in Biarritz – an outcome that in the past had required huge preparatory efforts at the ministerial and sub-ministerial levels months ahead of the Summit and was always subject to last-minute bargain and drama. It delivered a very short non-committal declaration and focused instead on specific initiatives. They consisted of a series of agreements on topical issues, including a charter on biodiversity, a fund for women’s empowerment for entrepreneurship, a fund to support the physical and psychological recovery of victims of sexual violence, an initiative for change in the cooling sector, an initiative for Business for Inclusive Growth, a plan regarding the Amazon wildfires, and a potential initiative to fight fires in sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the adoption of specific initiatives had been a recurrent pattern in previous G7 summits, it had always been a kind of “icing on the cake” of a joint declaration with broad scope and substantive arguments. In 2019, the cake, so to speak, was the set of specific agreements that did not require as broad a consensus as the joint declaration.
For international policymaking and cooperation, however, innovations in the G20 and G7 have brought no change to the ongoing dynamics away from multilateralism and the conduct of coordinated action under some collective leadership. The upgrading of the G20 and the creation of the FSB have not remedied the fragmentation of global financial governance, nor offset nationalistic temptations. In the G7, the proliferation of specific initiatives dear to some members of the group is a confirmation that fragmented action, often responding to individual leaders’ pet topics, as important as they can be, is here to last.
The challenges that the world is facing are complex and interventions to address them are particularly difficult to design. Informal groupings such as the G7 and G20 are not equipped to help develop and enforce such designs, as they are too dependent on the domestic political imperatives of the leaders who tend to bend the meetings’ agendas in ways often inconsistent with the dire needs of the planet.
This article was originally published in the 2020 Spring edition of Globe, the Institute review.