So much for all this summitry
The following is a guest post by Marc Levinson, a senior fellow for international business at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed are his own.
The world’s leaders are stuck on a summitry treadmill. Nothing better could come from this week’s summit meetings in Canada than a way for them to get off.
Consider President Obama’s schedule for the months ahead. On June 25, he heads to the summit meeting of the G8 leaders in bucolic Huntsville, Ontario. A couple of days later, those eight presidents and prime ministers, together with their retinues of finance ministers and central bankers, will join 12 of their counterparts at the G20 summit in Toronto.
Later on this year, Obama is expected at the North American Leaders Summit in Canada, date still uncertain, and the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vietnam, probably to be in October. There’s another G20 summit meeting in South Korea in November, followed by the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Japan. Then, the president will head home, do his laundry, and fly off to the NATO defense summit in Portugal. After that, a possible climate-change summit in Cancun, Mexico, awaits.
Each of these meetings seems to spawn another: one of the agreements at April’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington was to hold another Nuclear Security Summit in South Korea in 2012. No matter that some of the participants were less than enthusiastic. If the heads of important countries are having a summit, and if you think your country is important, you’ve got to be there.
Such events burgeon because a summit represents an opportunity for the host country to show off its charms and its economic progress, and no country wants to pass its turn. Under those circumstances, for a leader to stay home is a diplomatic insult. Obama’s decision to skip the European Union’s May 24 summit in Spain caused an uproar across Europe. If Mexico decides to turn the scheduled climate-change meeting in Cancun into a summit in December, Obama has little choice but to go – because, after all, he was one of the leaders who decided to attend last December’s climate-change conference in Denmark, turning it into a summit.
Individually, each of these summit meetings has its rationale. From terrorism to environmental degradation, the world is full of problems that no country can solve on its own, and summits offer the tantalizing promise of resolving them cooperatively. But against this potential benefit, summit meetings have some heavy costs, which largely go unrecognized.
The first is that they consume massive amounts of time and attention. No government can afford to send its leader to a summit unprepared. There must be speeches, briefing papers, and talking points for every issue that might arise. To prepare them, there must be interagency task forces and high-level working groups within each government. And before the leaders convene, their designated deputies must convene, often several times, to hammer out everything from the seating chart to the final communiqué.
For the United States, these preparations are quite burdensome, distracting government officials from more important matters for weeks on end. For some less wealthy countries, preparing for summit upon summit stretches their relatively small cadres of highly trained diplomats to the breaking point.
The second downside of the endless summitry is that it gives the public a fundamentally misleading impression of what their elected leaders can accomplish. Last September’s summit of the G20 nations in Pittsburgh is a case in point.
In Pittsburgh, President Obama and 19 counterparts agreed on a document called the Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth. This called for things like greater balance in the world economy, monetary policies consistent with price stability, exchange rates that reflect underlying economic fundamentals, and so forth. The communiqué was designed to reassure a public nervous that the world economy might fall back into recession.
The reality, though, is that many of the G20 leaders do not have the power to live up to such commitments. Achieving a more balanced world economy means, among other things, reducing the U.S. federal budget deficit, but it is Congress, not the president, that decides on spending and taxes. European leaders may endorse price stability, but they have no ability to do anything about it; it is the European Central Bank, not any prime minister, that sets the eurozone’s monetary policy. The summit communiqué generates a lot of news stories. But the media would be hard pressed to show that the world is a better place as a result.
The third problem caused by summits is that they give politicians an excuse to procrastinate by treating every problem as an international issue. Climate change is a case in point. No question: reducing the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions is something no country can achieve on its own. Yet there is much that individual countries could do to reduce their own emissions in their best interest. Aside from the European Union, few countries have done so. Most are waiting for an international agreement that may not be reached for decades, if ever.
There are times when summit meetings make sense. It’s good for world leaders to get to know one another personally, and there are some issues that are ripe for multilateral resolution, with texts ready for the leaders to sign amid solemn ceremony. But for these purposes, one or two big get-togethers a year should suffice. There’s no reason for summitry to become an end in itself.