Less than a Permanent Secretariat, More than an Ad-hoc Preparatory Group: a Prosopography of the G7 Personal Representatives, 1975-1991

“We give the Sherpas a needle every now and then about not overpreparing these sessions [G7s], but we do that just to make sure that they don’t take our jobs from us.”

Ronald Reagan, 28 May 1983


The sherpas are one of the very distinctive features of the organisation of G7s. Having no permanent transnational administration at hand, G7s were (and are) organised by personal representatives designated by heads of governments, that have quickly been dubbed “sherpas.” The metaphor is quite well-known now, but it remains very informative about the role of these personal representative. Sherpas are guides and carry supplies during expeditions to the summits of the Himalayas – just as diplomatic sherpas organise the heads of government meeting, provide background notes and discuss the final declaration. Given the reluctance of G7 participants to fully institutionalise the G7, the meetings of the West’s heads of government maintained this original form of preparation, instead of involving a permanent secretariat (like the UN, NATO, or even the European Council which made use of the secretariat of the European Economic Community’s (EEC) Council of Ministers).

Sherpas are not only a distinctive feature of the G7s’ preparation, they also lay at their heart. Reagan’s remark about the sherpa’s role is not just a jest: it does capture the personal representative’s considerable influence over the agenda, the organisation and the course of the summits themselves, although this influence has varied over time. It is the sherpas who spend long hours drafting a final communiqué prior to the summit itself, merely leaving undecided-upon expressions in square brackets that heads of government will, or will not, accept during the summit itself. In short, they are the true “summitry experts,” as Marie-Claude Smouts puts it. In a note on the “Future of Economic Summits” dating from 1981, the then personal representatives explain their own role in the following terms:

“(i) to identify the broad topics which Heads of State or government are likely to want and need to discuss;

(ii) to establish where there is likely to be general agreement – and therefore no need for extended discussion at the summit – and where there is likely to be some divergence of views among the Heads of State or Governement – and therefore need for discussion to seek to narrow divergence and produce convergence where possible;

(iii) to consider what should be the context and balance of a communiqué.”

As The New York Times summarised, “a sherpa is someone who does most of the necessary work in advance of a summit meeting so that the leader can show up and take credit for negotiating a good deal.”

Surprisingly the sherpas’ milieu, as such, is not studied in the literature on the G7s. Their importance in the G7 process is of course duly acknowledged, but their personal trajectories is not really a topic of enquiry. Probably because they are personal representatives and because the G7 was (and still is) not institutionalised to the same extent as other international institutions, similarities between sherpas are often overlooked, while differences are taken for granted. There is no study – either in political science or history – to date of their origins, background and careers.

The purpose of this chapter is to fill this gap by investigating the composition of this small but powerful group of people, and explore what it can tell us about the G7 itself and its place in the wider international system. Albeit weakly institutionalised by contrast to other international institutions, it is clear that the sherpas’ phenomenon transcended the individual lives of the persons involved. Following a prosopographical approach, this chapter scrutinises some key criteria – age, gender, background, career prior and after being sherpa, networks – and makes a series of statistical analysis on this data. This chapter covers 17 summits, from the creation of the G7 in 1975 until the end of the Cold War. It studies the phenomenon of the sherpas only. It does not include the sous-sherpas, these other civil servants that increasingly frequently appeared in the preparation of the G7s. Practical reasons apart (information about sous-sherpas is fairly difficult to find), sous-sherpas follow a rather more predictable social and professional trend: they are usually exclusively chosen according to a pre-determined administrative position or policy-oriented role (foreign ministry and finance ministry). Accordingly, their origins and background are much more predictable, by contrast to the sherpas. Part of the reason for this comes from the fact that sherpas are personal representatives, that is, personally chosen by the person they will represent, and hence both on professional criteria (a given competence in a specific policy-area) as much as a good personal acquaintance with the prime minister (a well-developed habit of working together). As Anne Lauvergeon, sherpa of Mitterrand (1991-1994), put it in describing her own role: “[I was] a copist monk working for a single reader.” This chapter outlines a prosopographical analysis of the sherpas’ milieu in three steps. Following a mostly statistical analysis, I will first present the main personal characteristics – age, gender, eduction – of the sherpas for the period 1975-1991. I will then explore the changes to this group over time, and how this reflects the evolution of the G7. Finally, I will analyse the wider implications of this group’s characteristics, in particular with regard to the insertion of the G7 in the wider international system, by scrutinising the evolution of the sherpas’ career after their time as personal representatives in a G7.




Published in Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol and Federico Romero (eds), International Summitry and Global Governance: the Rise of the G7 and the European Council, 1974-1991, London: Routledge, 2014.

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