International Relations/Political Science
05 October 2018

Summits: the end of an era?

Cédric Dupont, Professor, International Relations/Political Science & Director of Executive Education

The impact of the spectacular last-minute withdrawal of President Trump’s support to the carefully negotiated G7 joint declaration is yet to be discovered. It may “simply” be another nail in the coffin of the G8, already challenged by the G20 since the 2008 financial crisis and by the exclusion of Russia in response of its taking military control over Crimea. But more broadly, combined with the concurrent development of other approaches of governance, it may mark the end of 40 thriving years for summitry in international affairs – an era initiated by the creation of the G7 in the wake of the first oil crisis.

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 and fulfilling a range of functions. They now regularly serve at launching new initiatives, such as an agenda for humanity, or for sustainability. They also give guidance on world or regional political or economic affairs, a very useful function in the absence of a world government. Variation in scope and function has come with variation in forms and participation.

Yearly meetings of informal groupings, such as the G7/8 or G-20 are to be contrasted with meetings of the highest political bodies of many international organisations at the regional level, such as the African Union Summit, the ASEAN Summit or the NATO Summit. To the same category one could add high-level political meetings of international organisations, such as the Ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Last, UN Summits, high-level conferences acting as agenda setters on a range of important issues, have become common since the early 1990s – the Earth Summit (Rio, 1992), the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), the International Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005), and more recently the World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul 2016) to name a few examples.

It may seem unlikely that one poorly managed summit can stop the impressive growth of summitry. Yet, the recent failure of the G7 meeting is the latest 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 collective leadership, and the willingness to settle to some notion of diffused reciprocity – rather than strict reciprocity. It has now become clear that the current US administration has questioned each one of those foundations, giving preference to bilateralism, to reciprocity and to national solutions. The G7/8 fiasco reveals that such preferences are not conditional upon the nature of the partnering countries, be they traditional allies or not. So potentially all examples of summitry with US involvement are likely to experience the same fate as the G7/8.

Not all may suffer as much as the G7/8 though. The change of course of the US may well reinforce joint efforts from others -as seen in the domain of the environment. Hence, new leadership opportunities could open for Europe, China and the other BRICS, possibly inducing the US to revisit some of its preferences. It seems clear though that we are entering an era of summitry where multilateral, regular, institutionalised initiatives will run in parallel with bilateral, ad hoc ones, reminiscent to the pre-WWII situation.

This is a novel situation as summitry has always been dominated by one or the other model in the past. A situation with both types of summitry having an equal importance in defining world politics will require diplomats and decision-makers to either specialise in one of the processes or to expand their tool-set to master both.

In particular, negotiation dynamics differ significantly from one type to the other. Power use, posturing and reciprocity are key to bilateral processes whereas information, facilitating skills and deep links with non-governmental actors are key to multilateral ones. Decision-makers’ agility will therefore be their biggest asset in the future.