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Introduction: the Significance of the Houston Summit

John J. Kirton

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Conclusion: The Results of the Houston Consensus

In assessing the significance of the Houston Summit, as codified in the documents that follow, two central questions arise. Did the Summit signal a shift in power among its participants in a way that eroded or enhanced the ability of the group to serve in the new era as an order-shaping concert? And did the Summit's decisions make a difference to the subsequent course of world affairs once the Heads returned home?

Media commentators sensitive to the question of which countries won or lost at the Summit were quick to proclaim that Houston marked the advent of a three-power world, in which Germany and Japan had joined the United States as leaders in partnership. Yet despite the attention devoted to this trio, there was ample evidence that the other participants made their presence felt. Indeed, the United Kingdom, with its mediatory efforts on agriculture and emphasis on narcotics; France, with its emphasis on human rights in China and aid to lower-middle income countries; Canada, with its support for France on these issues, its consensus proposals on aid to the Soviet Union, and its initiatives on marine pollution and conservation; and the European Community, as America's primary antagonist on trade, were all vital to making the Summit a meaningful and ultimately successful meeting and a united and effective club.

The task of making conclusive judgements about the long-term impact of the Houston decisions would begin only after 1990 ended, when the report of the Summit-mandated group on the economic needs of the Soviet Union was received, when the final, early-December Brussels negotiating session of the Uruguay Round was completed, and when the results of the November meeting of the Second World Climate Change Conference were received in individual capitals. But the early signs were promising. Taking advantage of its Summit mandate, Germany moved to provide limited economic assistance to the Soviet Union, which agreed in turn to allow a rapidly reunited Germany to remain a full member of NATO. The United States and the European Community backed off their firmly-held positions and began exchanging proposals for agricultural subsidy reduction that discernably if imperfectly reflected the concerns of the other side. And in the environmental field, to take one example, the European Community, in accordance with its Summit commitment, voted for the first time in half a decade to abide by the quotas set by the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) on rapidly dwindling fish species.

The several thousand journalists who had warmed to the Summit experience in Houston gave almost no credit to the Summit for these steps forward once they had returned to their respective posts and routine preoccupations. But in the less glamorous, often invisible, persistent, and cumulative way in which international order is constructed in critical times, the influence of the Houston Summit was nonetheless very much felt.

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