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United States Foreign Policy and the G8 Summit

Lecture given at the Faculty of Law, Chuo University, Japan, July 6, 2000.

Professor John Kirton
Department of Political Science
Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto

The author would like to express his gratitude to Professor Kenji Takita, Professor Kazuhiko Okuda, and their colleagues and students for making this lecture possible.

Since its creation in November 1975, the Group of Seven, and since 1998, the Group of Eight major industrial democracies has been one of the many international institutions available to the United States as an instrument for influencing other countries and thus implementing its foreign policy in the world. In turn, the G7/G8 system has also offered an opportunity for the other members of the Group – Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Canada, and, since 1998 Russia, to affect and alter U.S. policies and the underlying preferences, values and interests reflected by those policies. In this quarter-century-old G8 game of reciprocal influence, it is difficult to imagine that it is Japan, Canada, and their G8 partners who win, and not the United States. After all, when the G7 was established in 1997, the United States was at least three times as powerful as Japan, and ten times as powerful as the G8's weakest member, Canada. Moreover, with its vast hegemonic power and its isolationalist traditions, the United States has long looked with suspicion on multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and preferred to deal with even its closest partners on a bilateral or even unilateral basis.

A close review of the record, however, reveals a different reality. Over the past 25 years, the United States has seen its relative capabilities in the world decrease, and its relative vulnerabilities increase, as the post–cold war world of globalization takes effect. As a result, the U.S. has increasingly come to value the G7/G8 as a forum for securing acceptance, and even for shaping the contents, of its preferred policies in the world. It has thus had to adjust to the preferences of the other members of the G8 club, and take on a variety of roles in addition to the one of leadership that it prefers.

In short, the U.S. now needs the G7/G8 system so it can implement those foreign policies that it used to be able to secure by its own hegemonic power. And this new American dependence has allowed Japan and Canada, working with other G8 partners, to alter those American preferences and purposes to their own ends.

1. The Traditional View of American Leadership

Most analyses of United States' foreign policy with regard to the G7/G8 are founded on three basic premises. These are:

i. The Irrelevant G8. The United States, as the world's predominant power, does not need international institutions such as the G7/G8 to conduct its foreign policy.

ii. The Indispensable United States. The G7/G8 cannot work effectively without the U.S. Only the U.S. can lead.

iii. The Predominant United States. The U.S. dominates the diplomacy within the forum as well as outside it.

In the view of this dominant analysis, the G7 was created in 1975 by the leaders of Germany and France to share economic leadership with the U.S. at a moment of temporary American weakness. But it has not affected U.S. behaviour, policy, interests or identities in the political-security domain, or indeed in other fields, particularly as America's predominant power has been restored under Reagan in the 1990's and Clinton in the 1990's. Thus, active and engaged American leadership is necessary for successful co-operation at the annual G7/G8 summit (Putnam and Bayne 1987). Moreover, in the classic realist sense, the United States, with its vastly superior capabilities, is the G7/G8 member least constrained by the collective commitments made by the G7/G8 members.

2. The Supporting Evidence for American Leadership

This view has considerable evidence to support it, especially during the G7/G8's first fifteen years of operation, from 1975 to 1989.

a. U.S.-Hosted Summits Perform Poorly

First, in those years the United States tended to host summits that were not particularly successful. According to the great summit scholar Sir Nicholas Bayne, the U.S. has an average grade of C- (see Table 1). Japan's average grade for the same period was B (that is, B+, B+ and C+). (Canada, by the way, received C, C-, B+, for an average grade of B-/C+ – safely in the middle, where Canada often likes to be.)

Table 1. Performance Record of Summits Hosted by the U.S.

1976 Puerto Rico D Nothing significant
1983 Williamsburg B Euromissiles
1990 Houston D Trade – no net advance
1997 Denver C- Russian participation, Africa
Average Grade:   C-

Source: Nicholas Bayne, Hanging In There, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2000.

b. Second Last in Compliance with Commitments

Secondly, the U.S. ranked second last (to France) in keeping its collective economic and energy commitments made at the summits during this period of 1975 to 1989, as shown in Table 2.

Table 2. U.S. Record of Compliance with G7 Commitments, 1997 to 1999

1. Britain 43%
2. Canada 41%
3. Germany 35%
4. Italy 27%
5. Japan 26%
6. U.S. 25%
7. France 24%

Source: George von Furstenberg and Joseph P. Daniels, Economic Summit Declarations, 1975-1981: Examining the Written Record of International Cooperation, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1992.

Note that these grades, even the U.S. one, are positive, in a calculation where it is possible to receive a grade not just of zero but of minus 100%. So commitments made at the G7 summit are meaningful. Its promises tend to be kept.

But these figures also tend to confirm the old adage that the strong do what they want and the weak do what they must. This is consistent with the argument that the U.S. uses the G7 to get other countries to accept its initiatives and preferences, and that it is only these countries, rather than the powerful U.S. and difficult French, that tend to comply with G7 commitments that are really American at the core.

c. The Discrepant Evidence

However, even with this evidence, there are major discrepancies. These include G7 success and U.S. adjustments in the wake of the 1979 oil crisis (as the American scholar John Ikenberry has pointed out), and the high degree of commitments in such fields of trade, where America's share of relative issue-specific capabilities is low. Indeed, during this period, 73% of G7 commitments in international trade were kept. Measuring by the U.S. dollar value of merchandise exports, G7 countries ranked as follows: the U.S. 12.6%, Germany a close second at 9.7%, Japan a close third at 7.7%, and even Canada in last place at 3.9% or about a quarter of the U.S. total. Could it be that when capabilities among the G7 partners are equal, the U.S. wins less, and genuinely collective management or concert governance takes effect?

3. The Alternative View of American Collegiality in the G7/G8

An alternative view of the G7/G8 as a concert provides a superior account of the United States' role in the G7, one that has acquired increasing validity in recent years.

a. The G7/G8's Origins

This account starts with the evidence that the G7/G8 was created in large measure by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a modern international concert to provide effective global governance, after the once hegemonic capabilities of the United States no longer allowed it to play its familiar unilateral leadership role in the world.

During the five years prior to the November 1975 creation of the G7, the United States had suffered a series of setbacks from crises that ran across and linked the economic, nuclear security and regional security domains (see Table 3).

Table 3. Policy Failures Leading to the Formation of the G7 Summit

Crisis was accompanied by sharply declining U.S. capabilities, carrying them below the threshold needed for the U.S. to govern the world alone (see Table 4). In short, by 1975 when the G7 was founded, the U.S. needed its G7 allies, for the first time ever, to restore its majority so that it could exercise the global governance it had been able to do on its own since 1945.

Table 4. U.S. Capabilities

Note: Capabilities are measured by a country's gross national product as adjusted by the value of its currency in U.S. dollars at the prevailing current exchange rates each year.

b. The G7's Evolution

Since 1975, despite some small rises and declines in U.S. capability in relation to its G7 colleagues and the other world powers of the time, the U.S. has never come close to seeing its pre-1975 relative capabilities restored. It has tended to experience a long-term secular decline, as shown in Table 5.

Table 5. U.S. Capabilities Relative to the G7, G8 and G9

1980: 41% of the G7; 35% of the G8 plus China (the G9)

1985: 52% of the G7; American majority restored, but only 46% of G9

1993: 38% of the G7; 36% within the G9 (the majority brought by the Reagan resurgence had evaporated as quickly as it had arisen)

1995: 38% of the G7

1997: 42% of the G7 (America's Goldilocks economy had not brought it anywhere near a restored American majority again)

c. The Vulnerability of Globalization

Moreover, even during times of apparent U.S. strength, America's underlying vulnerabilities, which are intensified by the globalization of the 1990's, make the United States depend more upon the co-operation of its fellow major industrial democracies to promote the world order it and they prefer. This has been increasingly evident as several financial crises have come, with increasing frequency and geographic "contagion" (see Table 6).

Table 6. Major Financial Crises of the 1990's

Even the American economy almost went under in September 1998, as a result of the collapse of the hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management. It was only when the G7 came to the rescue of a fast-freezing U.S. and global financial system that market speculators and the crisis they created were fended off.

d. The Concert Attributes as a Cause

The G7/G8 has become the United States' preferred forum for exercising effective global governance because of its small size, the common principles shared by its members, and the political control exercised by its democratic leaders, an effectiveness reinforced by recurrent crises and the institutionalization of the G7/G8 itself.

e. U.S. Concert Diplomacy

For concert diplomacy, the U.S. must adjust to the initiatives and preferences of others. It must implement collective commitments even when these are inconvenient and it must internalize a conception of its interests and identities as being those of a member of the G7/G8 club. This the United States has done. The willingness of the United states to adjust to the views of its G7 colleagues even amidst the growing spirit of American triumphalism I the post–cold war period was evident in several cases, notably South Africa from 1987 onward, Tienanmien Square in 1989-90, and the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development at Rio in 1992.

4. The Supporting Evidence of American Collegiality in Concert

a. The U.S. as a More Effective Host

The U.S. has become a more effective host and practitioner of summit diplomacy. As Bayne says, it can be particularly effective when it comes to the high, hard issues of U.S.-Soviet/Russian relations (see Table 1). However, a broader view, even of the security sphere, would give Denver 1997 a higher grade. For it was here that the G7 came close to completing what might be called the "Second Russian Revolution" by welcoming a democratic Russia as a virtually full member of the "Denver Summit of the Eight." It was also at Denver that Japan's Prime Minister Obuchi's historic decision to support Canada's initiative to create a global convention banning the use of anti-personnel land mines helped to induce Britain, France and even Russia to abandon an America that stood in opposition and bring the convention into effect.

b. America's Increasing Commitments

The U.S. has accepted more commitments, on a wider array of issues, including domestic ones once within its sovereign preserve. In the words of Dr. Ella Kokotsis, during the third summit cycle, from 1988 to 1995, "the G7 produced a large number of specific and often ambitious environmental and development commitments – 34 regarding climate change, 15 regarding biodiversity, 13 regarding developing country debt, and 21 regarding assistance to Russia" (Ella Kokotsis and Joseph P. Daniels, "G8 Summits and Compliance," in Michael R. Hodges, John J. Kirton and Joseph P. Daniels, eds., The G8's Role in the New Millennium, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999). The summit results in hard collective decisions in difficult areas, rather than just deliberations or the setting of new directions.

c. America's Increasing Compliance

American compliance with G7/G8 commitments has also risen, often quite substantially, to high levels. Over all years and issues, the U.S. has complied with 34% of G7 commitments, compared with 25% from 1975-1899. (It is still behind Canada's scores of 53% and 41% respectively. But this shows that all members are doing a better job, and the G8 is an increasingly effective way to get other countries to obey their international obligations.)

Methodological differences suggest the rise is U.S. and Canadian compliance is even more profound. Compliance has risen particularly strongly since 1992, in the post–cold war world.

5. America's Multifaceted Roles

It follows that within the G7/G8 America has come to play a variety of roles, beyond the single one of offering initiatives and inducing others to accept them, as the American Leadership model suggests. Following the analysis of William Antholis, the American G8 scholar and recent G8 practitioner, six such roles can be identified.

1. Leader. The United States is often the source of initiative and impetus within the G8 providing the proposals around which others will bargain and eventually agree. Indeed, some feel that global governance will not happen without U.S. participation or if the U.S. decides there will be none. The U.S. uses the G7 to direct international organizations. It considers global implications, and the precedent-setting or principle-setting aspects of the G7 statements.

This familiar view raises the question: Can there be global governance if the other G7 members decide not to participate or decide there will be none? In fact, there is now an effective equality of leadership. All members need the G7 to collectively govern a globe that none of them can govern alone.

Britain, France, Germany, Italy – in other words, the European Big Four – need the G8, too. They use it to dodge the bureaucracy of the European Union. Even relatively little Canada can take initiatives and lead. For example, it was Canada that in 1987 first suggested that the G7 collective address and condemn the Apartheid regime in South Africa and Ronald Reagan's United States eventually went along.

2. Vetoer. The U.S. will prevent issues from being put on the table. For example, in the setup for Seattle in 1999, the French and EU, which had proposed dealing with the difficult issue of biotechnology, wanted to use the G8 to help them. The U.S. was very reluctant to do so. It was not natural for the U.S. to cede ground. Given the subsequent problems that arose over this issue at the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting at Seattle in November and December 1999, some Americans feel that it might have been good to have done so, rather than exercise an American veto.

Yet, the U.S. ability to veto can be quite limited. For example, the U.S. does not like the G8 to develop as a complex institution that includes many ministerial meetings. They do not like ministers to be present at the summit, on the grounds that the ministerial presence detracts from the event. Ministers can steal headlines. They push their pet projects. Yet, at Tokyo in 1993, there were seven cabinet ministers from the U.S. More broadly, the 1990's have seen an extensive growth in the number of stand-alone G7 ministerial meetings, to the point where by 2000 more than half the departments of any G8 government had their ministers or cabinet secretaries involved in a G8 ministerial forum (John Kirton, "Explaining G8 Effectiveness," in Michael R. Hodges, John J. Kirton, Joseph P. Daniels, eds., The G8's Role in the New Millennium, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999).

Similarly, the U.S. favours establishing G8 working groups, such as those on climate change and crime, less than the other G8 members. It takes the position that if there must be a working group, it should solve the problem and then be abolished, without re-studying something being done elsewhere. But how many working groups are there now? According to recent estimates, more than 12 G7/G8-inspired working groups currently exist (Peter Hajnal, The G7/G8 System: Evolution, Role and Documentation, Ashgate, Aldershot, 1999). In the security field, there are working groups also for nuclear materials, missile technology control and non-proliferation. If the U.S. is opposed to the creation and continuation of working groups, it has certainly not prevailed.

The U.S. sees the G7 as a board of directors but not as a board that micro-manages things. It brings in the EU, Japan and Canada, whereas Canada is left out of the U.S.-EU dialogue. The EU, Japan and Canada consider the institutionalization of the G8 to be more attractive than the U.S. does – the United States tried to resist this process. If one examines the increasing number of G8 ministerial-level meetings across a wide range of issue areas, it is evident that the United States has not had its way. Indeed, a majority of the domestic departments of the G8 countries have been replicated at the G8 level.

3. Prima donna. The U.S. leadership style is to see what comes up for discussion and then decide if there is a need to act, rather than going into the meeting with initiatives already determined for demanding action.

This is in sharp contrast to the other North American member, Canada, who comes to the G8 with a real sense of opportunity to play on the world stage. This is useful for the U.S., which has played on it. Canada has many more resources to invest in the G8 than the U.S. does, which is useful. It is indeed a world of concert when the U.S. has to rely on Canada for intellectual, technical and policy leadership.

A recent case study from one of the weaker G8 members will confirm how the U.S. cannot prevent the initiatives of others from taking over. The Italians began their 1998 G8 planning with an initiative to deal with the smuggling of women and children, an initiative of which the U.S. officials were at first skeptical. The issue was raised at the EU, where there was no solution due to different legal or justice systems among the members. The U.S. took an aggressive stance against taking it to the G8. Italy, with its long coastline next to Albania, had a much broader influx of illegal immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. The Italian initiative snuck in at the last minute at Birmingham in 1998, when Italian prime minister Romano Prodi introduced it to President Bill Clinton, and turned it into a winner. Prodi is now head of the EU, and has taken the issue there.

Another example is France. The French, out of nowhere, put a 30-page study on the table about cloning for discussion at the Denver summit, inspired by Dolly the sheep. They wanted the U.S. to endorse it. In retrospect it might have been a good idea for the U.S. to have allowed the issue to have more attention than the few lines in the communiqué it got.

From a Deliberative to a Decisional Summit. In general terms, U.S. president Bill Clinton sees the G8 as an opportunity to promote the benefits of globalization and to be frank about its challenges. The U.S. needs the G8 leaders' discussions to have a level of gravitas worthy of the president. Otherwise the U.S. is dragged into intra-EU or intra-G7 disputes and caught up in dealing with fine points, rather than being dragged down into intra-EU disputes or intra-G7 disputes and hence dealing with minutiae, resulting in a long communiqué with detailed commitments. The G7/G8 is a meeting of heads of states and government; at the EU, it is the prime ministers rather than heads of state at the table. The European negotiators want a long, detailed document; the U.S. wants to set broad themes. The EU likes participating in international organizations; the U.S. is more hesitant unless there is a specific need and focus.

The Collective Leaders Summit (Political Control). In the recent past, the G8 has taken clear action on nuclear safety (the one-time Moscow G8 summit in 1996) and issues of citizen security such as crime, drugs, terrorism and the Lyon Group. At Denver in 1997, the U.S. put a detailed list on citizen security on the table. After their meeting, the leaders announced they needed more: They needed to break the barriers between agencies that had been identified. The unlikely combination of Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Romano Prodi and Helmut Kohl produced this result.

4. Whipping Boy. An adjusting America is the whipping boy of the G8. The U.S. started paying attention to global warming in Denver and the Europeans put it on the agenda at the end. Indeed, it turned into the issue of the Denver summit. It was thrust it into President Clinton's agenda, and he became very engaged in the issue. He did not like being embarrassed and thus was forced to deal more closely with the topic.

5. Referee. There are always battles among the other G7/G8 members and the U.S. plays referee. This was true on crime, where there was an intra-EU split on extradition. The G8 provides a way for the EU representative to hear Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. threaten to do something that the EU has been blocking because of reservations of the smaller EU countries. Japan is behind the times on issues such as Russia. The G7/G8 tells Japan it is an advanced democracy, so it should be have in a particular way. The U.S. referees those battles.

6. Good Cop. The other G7/G8 countries look to the U.S. to prod themselves into doing things they want to do but find difficult to do domestically. This was true in the Japanese banking crisis. At Birmingham in 1998, Japan said to the U.S., with a wink and a nod, it knew it has to take action, as the U.S. did with the Savings and Loan crisis, so could the U.S. show it how to bail out the banks and could the G7 tell Japan to do so. The U.S. thus helps other countries get what they want when it can in a "two-level game" of domestic and international politics.

But this good-cop dynamic works equally in reverse. At the 1993 Tokyo summit, the U.S. President used the rest of the G7 to put pressure on the U.S. to reduce the size of the U.S. budget deficit. This helped him in his Congressional push. Other members thus also help the U.S. get what it wants when it can.

6. The Prospective Role of the U.S. at Okinawa

All these roles are likely to be in evidence at the Okinawa G7/G8 Summit, which will be President Clinton's last. A review of America's role to date and likely behaviour in regard to the major issues at Okinawa shows that the world of singular American leadership at the summit is still evident. But this shows more strongly that it has been surpassed by a much more multifaceted and modest American role. This is evident by examining how the U.S. is likely to perform the six roles identified above at the Okinawa Summit on July 21-23.

1. Leader. The United States has shown its leadership in serving as a major force behind the emphasis the Okinawa Summit will place on the Information Technology (IT) revolution, and has sought to give this theme concrete force by proposing an initiative to create what might be called a new generation of "four electronic freedoms." Yet this American leadership will confront the concerns of those who wish to have Okinawa emphasize the need for socially safeguarded globalization and development, and thus a globalization and G8 system of governance that works for the poor as well as the powerful and prosperous in the world.

The U.S. is also providing leadership with the Expanded Threat Reduction Initiative (ETRI). The U.S. needs the money of its G8 partners to finance a reduction of those weapons of mass destruction that the Russians are willing to reduce. To secure the money, the U.S. need the richest G8 member, Japan, to pledge its share. Japan is reluctant, claiming quite accurately that it is the only G8 member with a massive fiscal deficit and proliferating accumulated debt, and that if it is to spend more money it should do so at home to boost domestic demand as the Americans want. What could the G8 give to Japan at Okinawa that would enable yen to flow and the ETRI to succeed? It could hasten, or ideally complete, the process of finding a formula to restore the northern territories from Russia to Japan.

2. Vetoer. The Conflict Prevention Officials Group is the latest working group slated to be unveiled at Okinawa, despite U.S. reluctance for the creation of G8 working groups.

3. Prima Donna. It is likely that the United States will wait to see how the issue of food safety, including genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is raised at the summit. As the United States is the largest producer of GMOs, it will seek to protect this industry internationally by preventing the Europeans from placing serious import restrictions on GMO foods.

In the area of the environment, it is also likely that the United States will wait for a discussion of the climate change commitments undertaken under the Kyoto Protocol. As the United States finds it difficult to meet the required reductions by 2002, it will seek to keep the subject off the agenda in any meaningful way, or it will enlist other sympathetic powers such as Canada and Russia to create more flexibility in the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol.

4. Whipping Boy. Okinawa will be a strategic place for the other G8 leaders to strongly encourage Bill Clinton to persuade the U.S. Congress to release funding for the HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) Initiative. With the rest of the G8 members on board, Clinton will feel embarrassed that the United States has not yet provided its share of the necessary money to make the HIPC initiative a success.

Similarly, in the security field, other G7 members may lend support to the desire of Japan to have the United States reduce its heavy military presence on Japan's southern island of Okinawa, where the summit is being held. Together with the beginnings of a new détente on the Korean peninsula, this combined G7 pressure may induce the United States to yield.

5. Referee. The Okinawa Summit provides the ideal venue for Bill Clinton to repair the record of his presidency for posterity. It is possible that the United States will mediate between Russia and Japan to broker a deal to return Japan's Northern Territories (known also as the Kurile Islands, which were seized by Russia at the end of the Second World War). When President Vladimir Putin met recently with President Clinton in the run-up to the summit, it was clear that Putin is in a strong position domestically and may find it financially advantageous to his country to cede the islands in return for substantial G8 monetary assistance. Clinton, as a long-time champion for the resuscitation of Russia as a world power, is the ideal G8 leader to deal with such a delicate yet timely issue.

6. Good Cop. The United States can provide the Japanese leadership with international impetus to de-regulate the telecommunication industry. Many consequential actors in Japan are asking for a decisive breakthrough into the Internet-based new economy, a breakthrough that cannot occur without de-regulation.

Taken together, the Okinawa Summit is thus likely to be one that features a modest America, sporting a wide variety of roles, rather than an America that serves as the only leader the G8 has.

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