Summitry Today

May 29, 2012

by Kenneth Weisbrode

The recent triple crown of summits—NATO, G8 and EU—has produced the usual complaints. Are these summits really necessary? What do they accomplish? Don’t they just raise and then disappoint expectations? Summit organizers are becoming defensive, emphasizing silver linings, the longer term and the like. Commentators generally have done the opposite, stressing the negatives. The Financial Times’ Philip Stephens for example has suggested that the summits signify the fall of the West, again (“Summits that Cap the West’s Decline,” 24 May). As historians, we have the luxury of saying it’s too soon to tell whether or how these summits and the discussions that took place there matter. But it is not too early to ask what they represent to the evolution and the exercise of diplomacy, and to compare this form of multilateralism with others as a way of asking how well it reflects, and serves, the current international environment. Do multilateral summits make sense in a global era?

Broadly speaking, summits are as old as diplomacy. They used to be called congresses, and did not always involve representatives of sovereigns but sometimes, as today’s summits do, the sovereigns themselves. Henry VIII, Napoleon and others had summits. But really only in the twentieth century did meetings of heads of state become regular, public events. This probably began with Woodrow Wilson’s decision to attend the Paris Peace Conference although most people will recall it first as a World War II and then as a Cold War development.

The American diplomat Raymond Seitz, in his review of David Reynolds’ book on the subject, reminds us that summits came to be seen as more important for adversaries than for allies. They showed, in other words, that, in spite of a divided world, someone was in charge. For this and other reasons they proved quite useful, and no history of either war could be written without taking into account this form of diplomacy.

Yet this raises the question of whether having summits is still a good idea. As was recently pointed out regarding NATO’s Chicago summit, a grand meeting like this every 18 months tends to delay or deflect important decisions (the excerpt begins here, on the third panel at 36.00). Perhaps the worst recent example was the Copenhagen “summit” on climate change, a portion of which Der Spiegel has exposed. The lack of consensus is not nearly as disturbing as the amateurishness of the discussions. It’s hard to imagine any of the participants—all senior politicians—passing a basic course in diplomatic negotiation, let alone statesmanship, with this performance. It serves to remind us that professional diplomats are still needed.

Whether they can do their job best in summits is open to question. The man who launched the G-series (G-5, G-7, G-20 etc.) of summits, George Shultz, with an informal gathering of a few ministers in the White House library back in the 1970s, has called today’s multilateral G-8 a “circus.” Even it has had professional “sherpas” for over thirty years to make it work, with varying degrees of success.

If summits were curtailed or even eliminated, would diplomats feel the need to invent them?