In 1919, diplomatic practice as the world had known it was about to change. This change would be brought about by a culmination of factors, including but not limited to: advances in communication and transportation technology, the ending of WWI and, most notably, the coming together of world leaders at the inaugural Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. Two precedents were set during this conference: the establishment of the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) and the invention of the summit as a way of engaging in international diplomatic negotiations (Finch, 1919, p. 161). In this paper I shall focus on the effect of the latter on diplomatic practice nowadays. The conference is a good starting point when examining the role of summits in modern day diplomacy. Yes, leaders of government and heads of state had been meeting for years (Goldstein, 1996, pp. 23-25), but many leaders and delegates congregating on a global scale was truly a new phenomenon, one that would change the practice of diplomacy forever.
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In order to truly analyze the contribution of summitry, or the practice of engaging in summits to negotiate important issues, first, I shall examine the history of modern day summitry from its early beginnings at the aforementioned Peace Conference as well as the rise and unprecedented growth of summits as an option to solve a diverse range of global issues. I will scrutinize select past summits to see if they illustrate the effects of summitry. Then I will look at the broad picture and explain summitry’s overall contribution to diplomatic practice.
In the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, which was a twin byproduct of Woodrow Wilson’s ’14 points speech’ and Germany’s desire to negotiate, the shape of diplomacy and international governance was changed forever with the establishment of the United Nations. This overshadowed the real reason the conference had been held: negotiations between the allied powers and the losers of WWI (Finch, 1919, p. 161). The conference also had another unintended consequence: the creation of the summit. A summit is, by definition, a meeting of heads of government to negotiate important or pressing issues. Summits can be planned yearly occurrences or impromptu conferences or meetings in which political leaders (at the highest level) meet for political purposes (Dunn, 1996, p. 20). In the resolution to create the League of Nations the following article states:
3. The members of the League should periodically meet in international conference, and should have a permanent organization and secretariat to carry on the business of the League in the intervals between the conferences (Finch, 1919, p. 170).
This shows a concerted effort towards the establishment of using an annual international conference (i.e., summit) to resolve issues between states and to facilitate negotiations on pertinent issues. While the conference set the precedent of a diverse group of states meeting to discuss multiple issues, it also served the major world powers at the time. Under the name of the “Council of Four,” the USA, France, Great Britain and Italy were the only delegates to be meeting constantly throughout the entire conference, regardless of other sessions going on (Finch, 1919, p. 176). This demonstrates that the international balance was going to be maintained no matter how many other countries were invited to participate. This small allowance of extra importance and ability afforded by the conference allowed the diplomatic process of the past its first introduction to the impending paradigm shift.
Traditional diplomacy (that of diplomats meeting diplomats) would meet its future where, much more often than used to be the case, heads of state themselves would do the negotiating and would meet with other delegates and representatives. This was the precise situation at the Peace Conference with President Wilson (USA), President Poincaré (French Republic), Prime Minister Lloyd George (Great Britain) and Prime Minister Baron Sonnino (Italy), the “Council of Four” all in attendance, and participating in the negotiation of multiple issues (Finch, 1919, p. 168). This Council became the precursor to the G-5 who would come to dominate not only international relations but also diplomatic practice in general.
The rise of summitry since that initial conference in 1919 has been astounding. There have been uncountable summits since 1919; the commonplace nature of their use has grown along with their importance. Summits have covered a multitude of issues and spanned regions and countries across the globe. In fact, it did not take long for the idea of summitry to take hold. Spurned by the outstanding representation of the original countries’ delegates, a conference convened in the United States in 1921-22. Although not as successful as the Paris Peace Conference, it still paved the way for future summits (Goldstein, 1996, p. 32). President Franklin Roosevelt followed Wilson’s lead and attended multiple summits abroad thereby establishing the precedent of leaders of government venturing out to change foreign policy personally through their own diplomacy (Goldstein, 1996, p. 33).
These two were the first in a long line of world leaders who would, through their interactions, negotiations and conferences at many sites around the world, help to shape not only the content but the process of diplomacy. While the focus of summitry over the years tended to be on the United States and the concessions that they intended to bring to the table, Europe has played a big part in the growth of summitry as a whole. In fact, the May 1960 Paris Summit between Russia, France and the USA focused on future European expansion issues and the direction and structure of NATO. It resolved key issues between America and Russia and led to drastic changes in Franco-American and Russo-American attitudes (Varat p. 102). The obstinate behavior and actions of Eisenhower, Khrushchev and de Gaulle, caused the eventual drastic failure of the negotiations, but despite this the summit itself would help to shape the history of diplomacy. The following passage describes what happened before the conference closed:
On 16 May, however, Khrushchev delivered the killing stroke to both the current summit and future ones when he launched into an overwrought tirade against American perfidy, berating Eisenhower for violating Soviet sovereignty and accusing him of wanting to start World War III (Varat, 2008, p. 105).
The Hague Summit, December 1969, had an important impact on the future direction of summitry in Europe and is notable because it ratified summitry as a successful policy tool. Among other things, this summit was responsible for the creation of the European Monetary Union, negotiations on the enlargement of the European Union, and European political cooperation (Redmond, 1996, p. 54). This summit led to the decision, eventually to be brought forth and instituted at the Paris Summit in 1974, that it “should institutionalize and regularize EU summits and hold them three times per year” [although I should note that this practice was ended in 1985] (Redmond, 1996, p. 55).
At the same time that European summitry was starting to stamp its influence on the diplomatic world, the then- recently un-colonized continent of Africa was beginning to recognize and utilize the process as well. From 1963 onwards, there has been a summit of African nations at least once a year, used to show unity on the continent and also to negotiate issues of importance to African states. This first conference in 1963 was held in Ethiopia, and is considered the most important African conference of the time, with 27 heads of government present and also creating the Organization of African Unity (Hodder-Williams, 1996, p. 136). Although, as Richard Hodder-Williams points out, there had been many meetings and groupings of African leaders dating back to 1918, this Organization and conference in 1963, showed the changing leadership and political dynamics in Africa as a whole (1996, p. 137).
From these early beginnings until now, where summits cover a wide range of international problems (non state and state issues), the rise of involvement of summits in the area of international diplomatic negotiations and interactions has been phenomenal. The precursor to the present conference on Climate Change (in Copenhagen in December 2009) was the Earth Summit which was held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June of 1992. It was, at the time, the biggest summit ever held, with 183 countries and over 40,000 observers and delegates participating in the process. The United Nations sponsored the event and the goal was to bring together as many world leaders as possible to help come to grips with, and hopefully put in place universal measures to tackle the problem, environmental degradation and destruction (Lanchberry, 1996, p. 222).
The ability of leaders of many countries to come together (mind you with lots of advanced planning and negotiations) and recommend solid policy proposals (sometimes) for the world to adopt should not be underestimated when considering the effect of summitry in the diplomatic process (Lanchberry, 1996, p. 235-239). The Earth Summit is representative of many of the summits that take place every year and which cover a multitude of issues. Most notably, the way in which the media, world leaders, NGO’s, and others attempted to come together for a common goal, even if the results appear watered down or don’t go far enough when translated to policy, shouldn’t alter the fact that leaders were able to coordinate their efforts, however briefly, to negotiate (or attempt to negotiate) binding policy.
Two cases which help illustrate some of the highs and lows of the process of summitry are the International Landmine Treaty Ban and the G7/G8 failed summit in Hokkaido, Japan in 2008. The first illustrates the successes that can be achieved by summitry and some of the good decisions and processes that can occur along the way, while the other shows that sometimes diplomacy should be left to diplomats, not inexperienced negotiators (aka world leaders) who in the end just make a royal mess of things.
In the span of just under five years, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) went from being an NGO awareness group, to being the key catalyst in the signing of a worldwide treaty to ban landmines (as well as the coordinator, Jody Williams, receiving the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts) (Leguey-Felliux, 2009, p. 122). The non-profit group used intuition and keen planning to pressure the international community to enforce the changes that needed to be made. The UN landmine conference in Geneva in April of 1996, helped to initiate momentum towards the final end goal of a worldwide treaty as well as provide a platform from which NGO’s and future governments could use to conduct the delicate negotiations needed to bring about the treaty (Leguey-Felliux, 2009, p. 124). The ICBL and the international community danced back and forth over the issue, by way of multiple conferences, all centered on the issue of banning landmines from the world’s stage.
It was through the pressure of the NGO’s present at these conferences acting under the coordination of the ICBL, coupled with the media pressure that caused lobbying and negotiations to turn into signatures on a treaty. With the world watching, and with more names (countries) being added to the treaty as the years passed and the conferences were convened, the pressure would slowly build on the remaining leaders to change their position and ‘get with the times’. The final summit was convened in the first week of December 1997 in Ottawa, Canada. It served the dual purpose of not only adding the final necessary and desired signatures to the treaty, but also helped fundraise and plan the implementation stages for the actual removal of landmines (Leguey-Felliux, 2009, p. 128). This was quite a feat considering that it started with an NGO using an opportune moment to seize upon the chance to remedy a serious social problem, and ended with government officials and heads of state negotiating policies that would allow the world to not only ban landmines but also start removing the existing ones. This summit showed not only coordination of different groups and countries, but also global governmental cooperation and negotiation on an important issue. But this summit could be viewed as an exception, and was chosen as an example specifically because of the incredible tangible results that it managed to achieve.
At the exact opposite end of the spectrum in terms of output or tangible results I have chosen to examine the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan in July 2008 as a good example of hype and bluster beforehand not quite equaling results afterward. In the run up to the summit, there was optimism abounding from journals, economists and academics alike. A press briefing ahead of the President’s trip to Japan as well as a report issued by the World Bank in preparation for the conference help to illustrate this optimism.
The President of the United States prepared for the Hokkaido summit by using the briefings given by his senior economic, Asian and environmental advisors to explicitly lay out the agenda of the summit as well as the individual bilateral meetings and the “working lunches” that would take place with many countries at the table (Press Briefing 7/1/2008). Some of the key issues that needed focusing on were climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty; the working lunches and bilateral meetings were to provide the setting for the international negotiations needed to solve these truly international problems. The President’s advisors were not the only ones preparing briefings before the summit to help formulate a path to successful negotiations and outcomes, however; the World Bank along with others was also drafting pre-summit reports.
The World Bank chose a different path from that chosen by the President. In their report “Double Jeopardy: Responding to High Food and Fuel Prices”, the World Bank illustrated the specific link between food prices and high oil prices and their effect on poverty by introducing a 10 point plan for the G8 to adopt (World Bank Report, July 2, 2008, p. 2). In this thorough report (which itself is evidence of the importance placed on this summit by the World Bank), there are specific policy recommendations as well as statistics illustrating the correlation between poverty, fuel and food prices (World Bank Report, July 2, 2008, pp. 2-5, 21-27).
Using these two different entities’ preparedness and seriousness as a barometer the outlook for the summit should have been positive. So what actually happened? The title of The Economist’s review of the summit pretty much says it all: “they came, they jawed, they failed to conquer – (A mountain-top gabfest provided a spectacular show and a long guest list but few answers to the woes of the world)” (Economist, 7/12/2008, p. 68-69). The summit proved to be rather futile in the end, but served the minimal purpose that most summits now serve, as a preparatory meeting for the next summit, sometime in the future. In the case of the Climate Change portions of the Hokkaido summit, some useless platitudes and posturing indicated that everyone was waiting for the Copenhagen Summit on in 2009. This is the new evolved summit: an opportunity for world leaders to sit face to face for a somewhat extended period of time, under media pressure to plan for another meeting in the future. This endless future planning is not actually useless; it should be thought of as one long protracted negotiation. The issue at hand will be resolved or policies produced to find solutions sometime in the future, at some future summit. It has been ninety years since the Peace Conference in Paris and the idea and practice of summitry has evolved drastically as well as becoming interwoven into the practice of diplomacy.
The summit is seen as a negotiating arena, a useful public relations tool, and a chance to renew and reaffirm relationships with other states; more than this it has been a platform for further negotiations on some extremely important global issues. Summits can be successful sometimes and unsuccessful other times, but whichever outcome materializes in the end, the foundation for future negotiations will be laid. The summit pervades the world of diplomacy and its effects are seen in the conduct, preparedness, and seriousness of NGO’s, world leaders, and other delegates in regards to their relationship with summitry.