Assessing the Role of G7/8/20 Meetings in Global Governance

2016 Summits volume“Previous summits have been useless,” wrote Jacques Attali, adviser to French President François Mitterrand, in preparing the 1981 Ottawa summit, the first one to be held since Mitterrand’s election.[1] G7s had not just been useless in the relations between the seven powers, Attali argued, but also in the relations between developed countries and in the North-South dialogue. Interestingly, Attali went on to say that problems – rather than the G7 itself – should be tackled differently: by adopting a more political approach and focusing on unemployment, among others. In spite of a provocative start, Mitterrand’s adviser therefore did not condemn the institution of the G7 as such.

Attali’s stocktaking of G7 summitry when Mitterrand took power highlights the central issue that lies in any assessment of multilateral summitry: distinguishing the outcome and the process. That a G7 was unable to reach an agreement is not automatically the responsibility of the G7 as an institution; although most of the time, one will read, as Attali indeed himself wrote, that a G7 has been “useless.” This statement should not, however, be interpreted as an assessment against multilateral summitry per se – Attali did not suggest putting an end to G7 summitry – but rather to the frustrating result that a specific summit had come to.

Assessing multilateral summitry therefore depends on a prior detailed examination of what functions the G7/8/20 was and is meant to fulfil.[2] The literature on summitry, both in political science and history, has outlined a range of functions already, as the editors mentioned in the Introduction. But most of these functions were self-assigned from the start: the actors themselves wanted to achieve a number of goals through routine heads of government meetings when the G7 emerged in the mid-1970s. The rise of regular summitry, understood as the frequent and regular meeting of heads of government at the international level, was an entirely new practice that emerged in the peculiar context of the mid-1970s.[3] The leaders of the time did not have a clear template after which they could model the new sort of gathering they had in mind; their frames of reference were the so-called Library Group meetings – the unofficial meetings of the finance ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the United States in the White House’s library – and the “fire-side chat.” However, they did have specific goals in mind as to what the G7 meetings would be used for. From 1975 onwards, Rambouillet became the main frame of reference, and from one year to the next, each new host tried to bring some improvement to the summit’s organisation. Together with this improvement emerged a clearer sense of what G7s could actually achieve: specific agreements, greater socialisation of leaders, improved cooperation – to name but a few.

This sense of novelty, and the piecemeal definition of the functions that such summits would fulfill, lay at the heart of the beginnings of the G7, and had important consequences as to its later evolution. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, advisor in the US State Department, very aptly summarised both the dilemma and the objective of a summit shortly before the Rambouillet meeting. His analysis largely applies to later G8/20 meetings, and deserves to be quoted in full:

The essential dilemma of the summit is that it will try to project publicly that Western leaders are able to manage current problems at a time when they do not fully understand the nature of the new types of problems they confront. The trick will be for the leaders to avoid both deluding themselves by boldly confident statements (which could tend to divert them from serious inquiry into their common problems) and lapsing into a categorization of their frustrations (which if made public would further erode confidence in democratic leadership).

The summit’s objective should be a serious inquiry into common problems to achieve better understanding of them and how to resolve them. The result can be an improvement in public confidence, a realization by public opinion that all nations face similar difficulties which cannot be overcome by painless panaceas, and a recognition by the assembled leaders that if they act together they can strengthen their hands internally, take stronger action than they might otherwise be able to do, and buy time and domestic support to work their way through their difficulties.[4]

Following on Sonnenfeldt’s perceptive remarks which largely coincides with many other reports from actors of the time and the literature on the topic, a range of functions that were and are assigned to the G7/8/20 clearly emerge: socialisation (of the leaders and of their diplomatic personnel), agenda-setting, reaching agreements, coordination/cooperation, psychology/trust.[5] In order to reach a qualified assessment as to whether G7/8/20 meetings fulfilled these functions, this chapter tries to distinguish between those functions that belong to the G7 as a process (that is, the G7 as a diplomatic instrument, which chiefly concerns socialisation and agenda-setting); and those that belong to the G7 as an outcome (namely, what the G7 contributed to global governance, which chiefly concerns the results). Inevitably, some of the functions do not fit neatly into one of these two categories only, which largely explains why the G7 is often considered to be inefficient – the process is confused with the outcome, one being successful and the other not. Such blurred functions concern cooperation/coordination and psychology/trust. This chapter finally explores the issue of counterfactuals in the assessment of multilateral summitry – what would have happened had the G7/8/20 not been created? – which lies at the heart of the most common frame of reference used for highlighting the need for multilateral summitry, namely, the crises of the 1930s.

The whole chapter can be found here.


[1] Archives nationales, site de Pierrefitte (thereafter AN), 5AG4/CD61, Attali to Morel, Esquisse du discours du Président à Ottawa, 4 juin 1981. My translation.

[2] The G6, G7, G8 and G20 are often compared in this chapter, but their respective backgrounds and timeframes deserve to be briefly explained here: the G6 emerged after the mid-1970s economic crises and included Britain, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and West Germany at its first meeting in 1975 (Rambouillet); it became the G7 with the inclusion of Canada in 1976 (Puerto Rico); the G7 became the G8 between 1998 and 2014 as it included Russia; the G20 referred to in this chapter is the meeting at head-of-government level including the G8 members plus Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey, that started in 2008.

[3] Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol, “‘Managing from the Top’: Globalisation and the Rise of Regular Summitry, Mid-1970s–early 1980s,” Diplomacy & Statecraft 23, no. 4 (2012): 679–703. For the specific case of the emergence of regular summitry in the EEC/EU, see the contribution of Mario Telo in this volume.

[4] National Archives and Records Administration (thereafter NARA), Department of State, Office of the Counsellor, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Entry 3, Memorandum From Robert Hormats to Kissinger, 24 October 1975. Original emphasis.

[5] Admittedly most of these functions could well apply to other types of summits. The literature on the topic is large; among the sources that mention these functions, one can refer to David Reynolds, “Summitry as Intercultural Communication,” International Affairs 85, no. 1 (2009): 115–127; David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century (New York: Basic Books, 2007); Robert D. Putnam and Nicholas Bayne, Hanging Together: Cooperation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summits, Second edition (London: Sage, 1987); Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol and Federico Romero, International Summitry and Global Governance: The Rise of the G7 and the European Council, 1974-1991 (London: Routledge, 2014); Noël Bonhomme and Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol, “Institutionalising Trust? The G7 Summits and the European Council Meetings, 1975-1990,” in “Trust but Verify”: The Politics of Uncertainty and the Transformation of the Cold War Order, 1969-1991, ed. Christian Ostermann, Reinhild Kreis, and Martin Klimke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Enrico Böhm, Die Sicherheit des Westens: Entstehung und Funktion der G7-Gipfel (1975-1981) (München: Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2013); Johannes von Karczewski, “Weltwirtschaft ist unser Schicksal”: Helmut Schmidt und die Schaffung der Weltwirtschaftsgipfel (Bonn: Dietz, 2008); Peter I Hajnal, The G7/G8 System: Evolution, Role, and Documentation (Aldershot; Brookfield, USA: Ashgate, 1999); Nicholas Bayne, Staying Together: The G8 Summit Confronts the 21st Century, G8 and Global Governance Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005).