Institutionalizing Trust? Regular Summitry in the 70s-80s (with N. Bonhomme)

pid_26656“In parting, Giscard commented that ‘in diplomacy mistrust is deep-rooted’ and hoped that we could work together to deal with such mistrust by full and frank exchanges.”[i] This scene took place in July 1973, when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was still French finance minister. More than two years before the November 1975 Rambouillet summit that brought together the American, British, French, Italian, Japanese, and West German leaders as the Group of Six, Giscard’s reflection highlights how deep-rooted the search for “full and frank” exchanges among top-level officials was in the mid-1970s. The role of trust in international relations is widely studied; so too is the role of institutional arrangements fostering trust. Yet the emergence of summitry from the mid-1970s onward is not taken into account as a subject of enquiry in its own right. For instance, Aaron M. Hoffman briefly mentions the creation of the European Council in 1974, but does not delve into its wider meaning in European politics.[ii] The Group of Seven (G7) is largely absent from Andrew H. Kydd’s analysis of trust and mistrust in international relations.[iii] Conversely, if the literature on the two summits offers some development of the theme of trust in these gatherings, its analysis of it is not systematic.[iv] The classic entente between French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt is of course mentioned. But the fact that the G7 and the European Council encouraged cooperation without trust has not really been explored.

By contrast, this chapter will focus on this dimension. It aims at analyzing the relationship between trust and the emergence of regular, frequent, and increasingly “banal” heads of government meetings.[v] By nature, trust is impermanent, and can be built or destroyed. Quite obviously, trust between individuals such as heads of government is not a given. One defining feature of the mid-1970s was the attempt at creating permanent fora of discussion between these heads of government. Two such fora emerged: the European Council (the meeting of the European Economic Community’s [EEC] heads of government, three times a year and whenever necessary), created in 1974, and the G6/G7 (the meeting of the heads of state or government of the most industrialized countries), which first met in 1975. Interestingly, an important underlying motivation in both cases was the need to create a structure that could maintain and foster trust among Western leaders in times of turmoil. This idea was widely shared by a generation of political leaders who created and developed these summits during the mid-1970s (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Helmut Schmidt, James Callaghan, and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter), and remained central for their successors who inherited institutionalized summits in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Bettino Craxi, and Nobuhiko Nakasone). This framework for international cooperation was thus institutionalized and stabilized with a view to create trust both at personal and collective levels.

Based on extensive archival research in British, French, German, and some American archives, this chapter examines how these institutionalized summits served as a tool to foster trust during the Cold War. It argues that these summits tried to foster trust both “internally” and “externally”: summitry aimed at developing not only trust among the leaders, but also crucially trust with regard to the Western (economic) system. These two ambitions—interpersonal and systemic—represented a vital transformation, albeit one imperfectly fulfilled, of the international system in the 1970s and 1980s.

The book is available here.


[i]           Telegram from the Embassy in France to the Department of State, July 27, 1973, in Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), 1969–1976, Vol. XXXI, Foreign Economic Policy, 1973–1976 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2009), doc. 48, 182–83.

[ii]          Aaron M. Hoffman, Building Trust: Overcoming Suspicion in International Conflict (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006).

[iii]         Andrew H. Kydd, Trust and Mistrust in International Relations (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005).

[iv]         See, e.g., Robert Putnam and Nicholas Bayne, Hanging Together: Cooperation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summits (London: Sage, 1987); Harold James, Rambouillet, 15. November 1975: Die Globalisierung der Wirtschaft [Rambouillet, 15 November 1975: The globalization of the economy] (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997); Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol, “Filling the EEC Leadership Vacuum? The Creation of the European Council in 1974,” Cold War History 10, no. 3 (2010): 315–39; and Enrico Böhm, Die Sicherheit des Westens: Entstehung und Funktion der G7-Gipfel, 1975–1981 [The security of the West: The origin and role of the G7 summit, 1975–1981] (Munich: Oldenbourg Verlag, 2013).

[v]          On the notion of increasingly regular summits in international relations, see 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.