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Introduction: the Significance of the Houston Summit

John J. Kirton

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The fifteenth annual meeting of the heads of state and government of the world's seven major industrial democracies and the European Community (EC), hosted by the United States in Houston, Texas from July 9-11, 1990, took place at a time of exceptional instability and opportunity in global affairs. The coming down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the coming together of the two Germanies in its wake destroyed the forty year old bipolar system created by the cold war and secured by the superpowers, and permitted the creation of a new international order incorporating the Soviet Union and even the People's Republic of China. The looming December 1990 deadline for the completion of the Uruguay Round, the most ambitious round of multilateral trade liberalization negotiations ever held, and the continuing deadlock among the West's major trading countries over the critical issue of agricultural subsidies suggested that the emerging post-cold war order might well dissolve into a multipolar trade war. Such a war would end the extraordinary prosperity enjoyed by the North in the 1980s, endanger the still-fragile economic and political reforms in the East, and eliminate the chance for the South to grow and trade its way out of its persistent poverty and crushing debt. Finally, accumulating scientific evidence about the destruction of the earth's climatic balance, forests, and other environmental life-support systems called for countries of all ideological stripes to unite as never before to combat the new generation of common enemies threatening the global community.

In the face of this historic challenge of defining the character of and managing the transition to the post-cold war order, the older institutional networks in world politics proved remarkably ineffective. Despite the new enthusiasm of the Soviet Union for the United Nations system, that institution failed to assist in ending the division of Germany and Europe; to incorporate the rising powers of Germany and Japan into the permanent inner sanctum of the Security Council; to dislodge an increasingly indebted United States from its unique veto position in the International Monetary Fund; to spawn effective action to preserve the global atmosphere; or even to convince the United States to pay its almost three-quarters of a billion dollars in accumulated arrears. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) at its London summit of early July 1990 proved unable to define a new non-security focus for the organization or to resolve differences over the wisdom of extending aid to the Soviet Union, even as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) failed to narrow entrenched differences between the United States and the European Community over trade and agriculture. The Eurocentric system based on the European Community, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) and such new institutions as the Group of 24 and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) also could not mobilize the resources required to repair adequately the ravaged economies and environments of Central and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. And the system of regular bilateral summitry between the superpowers, revived in 1985 and reinforced by the Bush-Gorbachev summits in Malta and Washington, left unanswered the questions of what order would replace the decaying bipolar system, and how the two declining behemoths could bring that order to life.

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