Hollow at the Top
A reflection on the functioning of world summits and negotiations.
by Jan Pronk
Nowadays world summits do not function as they should. They fall short in three respects. Their composition seems to be rather arbitrary, to begin with. At one time a summit will consist of five world leaders; at another time six, seven or even twenty Heads of State or Government are meeting together. Now and then some others are being invited to come along for a day or two. A summit's composition is not without any logic, but it is the logic of power rather than international law. It is limited power only, because countries that do not take part are not bound by the outcome of the summit. Usually those outcomes, if any, are hardly worth mentioning. That is the second shortcoming. Summits, such as the recent ones in London (G20 summit) and L'Aquila (G8 summit) attracted much publicity. However, results have been meagre. At the London summit much less agreement was reached on a common response to the international financial crisis than would have been justified by the depth of this crisis. The agreement was limited to side issues such as tax havens.
The real causes behind the crisis were not addressed. In L'Aquila world leaders were supposed to agree on a common policy to contain climate change. However, the agreement did not go beyond listing vague objectives, not binding anyone, not even the participants themselves. How these objectives were to be met was not indicated at all. The outcome was nothing more than a wish list. Usually a summit meeting lacks an authority that can ensure due process. There is no apparatus setting the agenda, guiding preparatory negotiations, and – most importantly – looking after the implementation of possible results of the meeting. Implementation is left to the participating countries. These countries can give it a twist by delaying the steps required, or by putting them off indefinitely or introducing new unilateral conditions. They may even choose letting things slide, eventually. The summit event itself seems to be more important than its result.
The general public is easily misled. People affected by an economic crisis or by climate change, who were expecting that something would be done conclude that matters stay as they were. The summit turned out to be nothing more than a show. Electorates seeing through this tend to lose their confidence in politics as such. This will make it even more difficult for governments to show political leadership later on. The third shortcoming is that summits are not rooted in an accepted political, legal and administrative structure. They are not obliged to obey principles and rules of international law. There is no charter guaranteeing the rights of non-participants and minorities. There are no generally accepted appeals procedures and sanctions.
Anchoring summitry into the system of the United Nations may help coping with these difficulties. This would kill two birds with one stone: coming down to business at a summit and making a concrete start with the long awaited reform of the UN. The workings of the UN can be made much more effective than they are at present. Bringing together in one meeting the representatives of two hundred countries does not make much sense, neither at the level of diplomats nor of ministers and certainly not at the level of Heads of State or Government. Such meetings are ritual affairs. Participants can listen to each other's speeches. They can meet in the corridors and explore and exchange ideas. This may be useful in itself. However, effective decision-making requires meeting in smaller groups, which could consist of a fixed number of permanent members next to an agreed number of rotating members. When this composition is representative of the world community as a whole and rooted in a charter based structure, with rules guaranteeing the rights of non participating countries, business can be done effectively. Such meetings can be held at both the diplomatic and political level. Meetings at the highest possible level — Heads of State and Government — can provide a clear-cut mandate at the beginning of negotiations and function as a lender of last resort in order to reach final conclusions.
Dependent on the agenda concerned these meetings could take place within the framework of a reformed United Nations Security Council. The UN administration could then be given the authority to oversee the implementation of political decisions made in the summit framework. For some issues the administration itself could be granted the power to take implementation in hand and be equipped with the necessary instruments and resources.
The two main issues mentioned above — the world financial crisis and climate change — are not the only ones that would require world wide handling, beyond talking and showing the flag. Food security, the erosion of biodiversity, the exploration and exploitation of the Arctic and the oceans, the transition towards sustainable energy, the proliferation of nuclear arms and the management of large conflicts such as those in the Middle East would also justify a different architecture of international decision-making. United Nations summit meetings, held selectively, with legitimate procedures and a representative composition could play an important and effective role in addressing these questions.
Which countries would have the courage and wisdom take an initiative towards such a reform of both summitry and the UN?