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Changing Patterns at the G7 Summit
Nicholas Bayne

G8 Governance No.1 (May 1997)

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Summit Cycles

One important prior issue is where, if writing Hanging Together again, I would do things rather differently. The last chapter in the book analysed the 12 Summits up until 1986 in terms of a four-year cycle. But experience since then shows Summit cycles are rather longer. As with starting off running or rowing, the initial rhythm was rather faster. But the Summit has now settled into roughly a seven-year cycle, with the shift coming about at the end of the sequence of host countries, which finishes with Canada and starts again with France.

The first, highly eventful cycle ran for about six years, from 1975 to 1980. Those Summits were very ambitious in economic policies, arguably too ambitious, so that sights were lowered by the end. The Putnam grading scale, which measures how much each Summit changed things, shows this as a very active group - though in retrospect some marks look high.

The second cycle covers the eight years of the Reagan presidency from Canada's first Summit, Ottawa 1981, to its second, Toronto 1988. This group was less interesting economically. Macro-economic policy passed from heads to finance ministers, with the publicly admitted G7 in 1986 replacing the secret G5. Much more attention was paid to non-economic foreign policy issues. In general, as the Putnam scale confirms, this group made less impact on the world than the first - though I would adjust some of the Putnam marks upwards now. In this period also the Summits forfeited the support of the media. But this cycle started some trends which flowered later: the Uruguay Round was launched; work started on debt, including the Toronto terms; and terrorism was an active issue.

The third cycle lasted six years, 1989-1994. It was again very eventful, starting off with the end of the cold war. This brought a new focus on Central and East Europe and then the presence of Russia - the greatest innovation of the Summits. There was intensive work on trade and debt issues; and new work on transnational issues, especially the environment, drugs and money laundering. Foreign policy subjects were active too, with political directors added to the sherpa apparatus.

With so much to do, agendas became overcrowded and declarations ever longer. This was not what the leaders wanted, which led to rebellion in 1992. The pressure since then has been to simplify style and procedures. Some progress has been made in this, leading to the "Chevrolet" Summit at Halifax in 1995. But though time has been gained, the agenda and the Summit documents have not got shorter.

The fourth cycle began at Halifax. The trends are not wholly clear at this early stage. But a key feature is the focus on reforming international institutions. This started at Halifax and was sustained, to my surprise, at Lyon, though it attracted very little public attention. The US and UK can be expected to maintain the momentum on this in 1997 and 1998. Another feature looks like increased attention to international public order issues: terrorism again, drugs and money laundering, nuclear proliferation, including nuclear smuggling, and international crime. All this has more politics than economics. Economic issues are being increasingly delegated to subordinate G7 groups. Before the cycle ends, questions of Summit membership may become active, e.g., for Russia, possibly China and other large developing countries, and even post-European Monetary Union (EMU) Europe.

How successful have the Summits of the third and fourth cycles been? An updating of the Putnam scale, to cover the Summits since 1987, reveals higher marks for the Summits of the third cycle than the second, though still below the first. (The first two Summits of the fourth cycle also score well.) These scores were achieved even though the third cycle was a period of unusually difficult relations between Europe and the United States. (Canada got closer to the US but had more trouble with Europe, while Japan had more trouble with the US.) For various reasons, the end of the cold war, which should have been a time of successful joint endeavour, revealed serious sources of transatlantic discord, all the worse because they were unexpected. Four of these stand out.

First, as is often argued, the cold war was a factor inducing the members of the Atlantic Alliance to settle their disputes and remain united before their common enemy. Without this constraint, countries were tempted to push disputes further, for example, over fisheries.

Second, the end of the cold war coincided awkwardly with a period of recession and low growth. Before the events in East Europe, the Anglo-Saxon economies - US, UK, Canada - went into a recession caused by asset-based inflation. The continental European economies went down after them into a recession provoked by the strain of absorbing the eastern Länder in Germany. Recession feeds protectionism and inhibits economic reform. This had an impact on the Uruguay Round and reform of the Common Agricultural Policy(CAP).

Third, the end of the communist empire and the unification of Germany caused the Europeans to go further than originally intended in their new round of integration, adding European political union to economic and monetary union. Negotiating the Maastricht treaty and getting it accepted preoccupied the Europeans and also made them a bit pushy. Other G7 partners felt neglected and patronised.

Fourth, the end of the cold war gave a strong boost to the United Nations (UN), as the Security Council could now agree. There were many more peace-keeping and humanitarian operations, more than the machinery could bear. The US decided, exceptionally, to send troops on the UN operation in Somalia. This was a bad experience for them, which made them refuse to send ground troops to the UN operation in Bosnia. Their refusal to do this, while urging North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air strikes endangering the European and Canadian troops that were on the ground, caused deep resentment in Europe and Canada.

As the fourth Summit cycle advances, these tensions are wearing off. The recession is over. Transatlantic relations are much improved - though not without problems, for example over the Helms- Burton Act. The Summit process was unable to prevent these tensions, nor could it always resolve them. But the G7 Summits proved their worth: they encouraged the practice of consultation, inhibited disagreement from turning to conflict and produced some useful results. When it took sides, Canada went sometimes with the US, sometimes with Europe. But Japan, except when attacked directly, was largely a spectator. Japan was most influential in Summits during the second cycle, under Prime Minister Nakasone More recently, there has been a sequence of weak Liberal Democratic Party(LDP) leaders followed by political upheaval. This is healthy in the long run for the Japanese political system, but reduces Japan's impact for now.

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