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Too Many Summits, Too Little Action

Fraser Cameron

The world is becoming bored with the incessant meetings of international leaders that seem to produce less and less in terms of concrete decisions that affect people’s daily lives. Leaders like summits as they allow an escape from the daily grind of domestic politics. Bureaucrats love summits as they allow them to feel useful preparing lengthy communiques that no one ever reads. Journalists also like summits as they can boost their frequent flyer miles while being spoon-fed summit statements. But for the rest of us, the incessant summitry of the modern world seems to produce precious few results.

Towards the end of May, the G7 will gather in Japan to pronounce, yet again, on the state of the world economy. Fundamental differences on economic policy will be glossed over as the leaders smile for the world’s media. The G7 was supposed to fade away with the boost to the G20’s standing, following the Western financial crisis of 2008-09. It was widely held that the then G8 (Russia was still a member) had outlived its sell-by date and that the G20, representing 85% of the global GDP, was a more inclusive grouping. But, while the G20 meetings in London (2009) and Pittsburgh (2010) were useful in agreeing to boost demand and combating protectionism, the meetings since then have been lengthy in statements and short on action. Can anyone remember one useful decision at the summits in France, Mexico or Russia?

Now the G7 is back in fashion with the Sherpas agreeing that it is much easier to reach an agreement without pesky Russia at the table. As one Japanese official dealing with the G7 summit recently said, “It is a real community of states with similar values, and that makes all the difference.” This means that there will be no rows, when the US and Russia or Japan and China are in the same room.

When in Tokyo, I suggested to the Japanese that they should offer to brief China at the highest level on the G7 outcomes, as China will be hosting the G20 summit in Hangzhou in September. With both G7 and G20 leaders meeting in Asia in a few months, it would be useful to try and promote as much symmetry as possible between both summits. The Japanese were surprised at the suggestion. We shall see if Abe decides to call Xi.

What about the BRICS and its planned summit in India in October? There is less boasting about the new BRICS world order these days. With the exception of India, all are suffering because of reductions in growth rates. All are plagued by corruption and their leaders have to deal with an array of domestic political issues, leaving less time for foreign policy. But, they are still expected to show up in Goa.

Many other summits are scheduled in the coming months. Putin’s brainchild, the Eurasia Union, has not really taken off, but a summit will be held. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has still to find a raison d’etre but it still attracts leaders. China and Japan compete to host summits for African and Southeast Asian leaders. NATO has found a new lease of life after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and interference in Eastern Ukraine. Its next summit is due to take place in Warsaw in July, when it will agree measures to combat an increasingly assertive Russia.

July will also see the Asia-Europe summit in Ulan Bator. Celebrating 20 years of summitry ASEM leaders will try and chart a course for its future. Asian countries can also look forward to six monthly meetings of ASEAN leaders and the annual APEC and East Asia summits.

To add to this, one must not forget the annual UN circus in September in New York. As one EU official said, “No one goes to listen to the speeches – but it is a useful venue for side-meetings.”

To add to this, one must not forget the annual UN circus in September in New York. As one EU official said, “No one goes to listen to the speeches – but it is a useful venue for side-meetings.” And finally there is the increasing summitry of EU leaders.

One reason for all these summits is that, decisions are increasingly being taken by presidents and prime ministers. Other ministers, including foreign ministers, are rarely empowered to take important decisions. This leads to the danger that top leaders are simply overwhelmed by the number of decisions that reach their desk. It is no wonder that they sometimes prefer to go and chat with their fellow leaders at some distant summit. But is it good for policy-making? The answer is clear. No.

Fraser Cameron is the Director of the EU-Asia Centre in Brussels and Visiting professor at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.

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