Summit diplomacy is an irreversible phenomenon that is not alien to contemporary diplomacy. It has been an ongoing practice as far back as diplomatic activity has been in practice. Summit diplomacy has its roots in the “new diplomacy i.e. diplomacy in the democratic age between open governments” (Dunn, 2004, p. 140a). It has evolved and developed over the centuries and as such, much attention is given to it. Recently there has been an upsurge on it which is due to the fact that it is no longer done on low level but now common place and referred to as high level diplomacy.
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Amongst other advantages, Leguey-Feilluex states that the primary advantage of summits is that it involves the leaders that are directly responsible for making policies (2009, p. 294). In as much as it has been celebrated for its benefits, there is a lot of controversy surrounding this practice; diplomacy at the summit level has been highly disdained by diplomats because of the claim that it relegates their roles. It has also been said that it could be a waste of time, effort, and resources.
Even though summitry can be detrimental to diplomacy if not properly organised, I believe that if judiciously prepared, summits will come to be appreciated and accepted as a method of conducting diplomacy. This essay is an attempt to explore or delve into the depths of the concept of summitry diplomacy, and in this process unearth some information about it, also to examine the contribution of summitry to diplomatic practice.
What is Summitry
In contemporary times, a method of conducting foreign relations is evolving, as times go by, this method is waxing stronger and is known summit diplomacy and this has brought in its wake, a wave of arguments for and against this new global development in international relations. However it is a “misunderstanding in history to regard it as a new phenomenon” (Plischke, 1974, p. 43) since it has been in practice far longer than it has been popular.
The earliest record of the usage of the term “summitry” came into play when Sir Winston Churchill popularised it in the 1950’s by introducing it into international parlance. Summitry as a term was therefore coined by Winston Churchill, Even as a term that was coined then, it is however a point to note that the practice has been in for a longer time. In fact, it dates back to the fifteenth century. This fact begs the question; if it is a practice that is not new, why is it being popular in these times? The best answer to that would be because of the way summitry is being conducted. These days- it is more frequent and at a higher level (Dunn, 1996, p. 4b).
Summitry is a process wherein political leaders take diplomacy into their own hands instead of leaving it to the professional diplomats; leaders, heads of state, prime ministers, presidents, monarchs, all come together to discuss issues of foreign relations. According to Plischke, summit diplomacy may be: “interpreted as the determination and publicizing of foreign policy and the management of international affairs at the chief of state or head of state level” (1967, p. 43).
I would like to point out that in order to effectively conceptualise summitry, it will be appropriate to take into consideration different features of summits; the first is the fact that summits are organised between countries of a higher class, i.e. between groups of the same class, secondly, summitry is for reaching agreements. In addition, a summit can be “differentiated from other forms of direct personal diplomacy among political leaders such as correspondence, telephone conversations or direct talks e. g. video conferencing” (Melissen, 2004, p. 188).
Over the years, summitry has evolved greatly and it is due to so many factors of which I will be pointing out some of them. Dunn, states that summitry grew out of crisis, especially political crisis, when governments and states were facing tough times; the need to meet, dialogue and reach agreements on very salient issues with other heads of government arose, governments needed to deal with crisis and decided to take matters into their own hands. Summitry then, had to do with a bit of urgency (1996, p. 5b)
Another important factor for the development of summit diplomacy was growing interdependence of the world economy; the world has economically grown closer as financial markets, corporations, and banks have all become multinational, and because resources are unevenly scattered and no country possess all the resources they need to survive, therefore countries must come together to trade in order to sustain their economy. For example, petroleum is shipped from Africa to major energy-importing regions such as the United States, thus the growth of global economic interdependence, and consequently the spread of summit diplomacy (Dunn, 1996, p. 12b).
Dunn also states that summitry has also developed as a result of technological inventions, breakthroughs and advancement. Technology has progressed at an accelerated rate and has been profound during the twentieth century which has greatly improved the pace and method of conducting foreign relations. The revolution in technology transformed the very nature of diplomacy itself which meant heads of state, foreign ministers and other important officials could now make intercontinental trips in such a short time as opposed to long trips which sometimes took days or weeks. Also, in the aspect of communication, mobile phones, video conferencing and other electronic means has increased the rate with which diplomatic negotiations take place (1996, p. 6b).
Furthermore, summitry developed due to the importance of the media and public opinion in international affairs. This development has sought the need for political leaders to become much more transparent in their dealings. “The summit is thus not only the expression of the direct political ties between the leader and his people; the political leader is also perceived as the diplomat-in-chief” (Melissen, 2004, p. 194).
It may not be easy to measure the success of summitry; however we can assess the contribution of summitry by analysing the functions of types of summitry to diplomacy. These summits can be classified into three; the serial summit, the ad hoc summit and the exchange of views summit. These different types of summitry serve different purposes. The function which the summits may promote include; “promoting friendly relations, clarifying intentions, information gathering, consular work, and negotiation” (Berridge, 1995, p. 84a). I intend to enumerate the contributions of summitry to diplomacy through the different types of summits.
Serial Summit and its Contribution
The serial summit is part of a regular series of meetings. There are numerous examples of serial summits, some of which include the Franco-German summits, G7/G8 summits (which are a contributory factor in international discourse,) ASEAN summits, US-AU summits. Another good example of a serial summit is the Western economic summits which have been held annually since 1977 at Rambouillet (Barston, 1988, p. 105)
The serial summit is particularly useful for promoting friendly relations and negotiation; “whether serial summits are frequent or separated by a year or more, and whether they last for hours or days, they may contribute to a successful negotiation between parties concerned” (Berridge, 1995, p.85a). Firstly, they educate heads of governments without international experience; no head of government wants to make a fool out of themselves among other leaders, therefore they are motivated to work hard and develop themselves concerning matters of importance to avoid failure at the summit level; and they cannot afford to be ignorant.
Secondly, they “make package deals easier” (Berridge, 1995, p.85a). Since it involves the interaction of political leaders who have maximum authority as policy makers, deals are therefore easier to seal appropriately and in a forthright manner.
Another function of the serial summit is that it speeds up and sustains diplomatic momentum in the sense that it sets deadlines for the completion of an existing negotiation between the parties and it breaks any deadlocks in negotiation due to the fact that all the important policy makers are together. An example of a deadline was in a negotiation was December 1990 at the Brussels ministerial meeting in GATT’s Uruguay Round (Berridge, 1995, p.153a).
Serial summits are also useful for gathering information about other countries and their leaders, clarifying intentions, creating awareness, generating understanding and enhancing cooperation amongst members of the summits. The best example of the serial summit is the Franco-German summit which started in 1963 and since then, meets at least twice a year (Berridge, 1995, p.86a)
Ad hoc Summitry and its Contribution
Another type of summit is the ad hoc summit which is usually a one-off meeting convened to address a particular issue e.g. to address a crisis, although it might end up being the first of a series of other meetings and they usually generate more publicity than the serial summits. Special cases of ad hoc summits are ‘working funeral’ which is a “funeral of a major political figure that is attended by high-level delegates from all over the world” (Berridge, 2002, p. 180b). Examples of ad hoc summits are the Cocaine summit, the Sino American summit, and the Camp David summit.
Ad hoc meetings are very useful for imposing deadlines on a negotiation process. A case in point is the Camp David Summit of 1978, which was between Israeli, Egyptian and American leaders and lasted for the whole of thirteen days. Dunn states:
It was deliberately described by President Carter as a last chance effort to breathe new life into the failing Middle East peace process which had started so dramatically with the initial meeting between Sadat and Begin. The singularity of this opportunity undoubtedly contributed to its final success (2004, p.153a).
Ad hoc meetings are more suitable for symbolic purposes and they also provide a forum for the promotion friendly relations and fostering and leaders become familiarized with other heads of governments and states. An example of such a meeting is the encounter of President Clinton of the United States and President Hafez al-Assad of Syria in Geneva in January 1994. The two-day Ibero-American summit held in Mexico in July 1991 is also an ad hoc meeting that was aimed at promoting the growth of economic and cultural ties between its participants (Berridge, 2002, p.179b).
Furthermore, funeral summits have contributed immensely to diplomatic affairs by carrying out the function of diplomatic signalling. According to Berridge:
at the funeral of the Emperor Hirohito of Japan in Feb 1989, it was recorded that representatives from 160 countries including 14 representatives of royal families, 55 heads of states, 11 prime ministers were in attendance (2004, p. 172c).
Firstly, it is a discreet opportunity for leaders to come together to meet on pressing issues at stake and also a disguise for low key exchange of views between contenders on how to manage conflict. Funeral summits are of diplomatic significance particularly if it is the funeral of a current president or head of state this is because it serves as an important opportunity for political lobbying. Berridge states that:
the funeral is almost certain to be the first occasion for both foreign friends of the deceased to confirm that the new leadership remains wedded to their relationship and for foreign rivals to explore the possibility of a change of heart (2002, p. 180b).
.High Level ‘Exchange of Views’ and its Contributions
Finally, there is the exchange of views meeting. This is a situation whereby heads of government visit series of countries on a foreign tour. It is usually relevant when a newly elected leader has come into power to educate and familiarize them on the international scene. (Berridge, 2002, p.181b)
This summit also promotes more friendly relations between their countries and others. For example, in “September 1994, the British prime minister went on a week-long trip to Abu Dhabi, South Africa and Gulf and other places where he visited the King of Saudi Arabia, and had friendly encounter with him” (Berridge, 2002, p.181b)
Finally, “the exchange of views meeting can be very useful for promotion of trade and in taking up serious cases of maltreatment of nationals” (Berridge, 2002, p.181b).
Advantages of Summits
Summits have symbolic importance for example the Moscow summit of 1972 was a representation of the new relationship of superpower détente. The Vienna summit of 1979 was also a way of symbolizing that there was a better relationship. For example, the Cold War summits held in Paris, November 1990, was used to advertise the end of disputes between the parties involved and to symbolize peaceful relations (Dunn, 1996, p.248c).
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In relation, summitry is a useful tool for promoting foreign and domestic propaganda; attracting the attention of domestic, foreign and global audience to some issues. It gives the idea that the government is busy doing something about an issue – domestic or global, especially in democracies. An example of summit propaganda is the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in New York on 22 September 2009 and in Copenhagen Denmark, December 2009 to create momentum on greenhouse gas emissions (Dunn, 1996, p.249c).
Summits also provide the opportunity for governments to come together and gather information about their counterparts, this helps to break down barriers of mistrust and suspicion, and thus they can build up friendly and trustworthy relationships with them. As a consequence of such high level meetings by top leaders that are responsible for government action, issues deliberated on produce efficient results in comparison (Dunn, 1996, p.248c).
Furthermore, summitry serves an agenda setting function; this is an opportunity for global issues of overarching political or strategic importance to be brought up to the forefront and addressed effectively. Dunn states that it is useful for: “elevating issues to the top of the international agenda and for dealing with problems of with speed and authority” (1996, p. 251c). A case in point is the G20 summit in Huntsville, Ontario, Canada, June 25-27 of 2010 which will set global economic agenda.
Disadvantages of Summits
In as much as summitry has lots of advantages, and has contributed positively to the practice of diplomacy it has also faced oppositions from different angles. Over the years, the usefulness of summitry has been in question; it is surrounded by so many controversies and most of the major opposition arise from diplomats who claim that it meddles in their affairs and which has a ‘demoralizing effect on them and other elements of the diplomatic service’ (Plischke, 1967, p.48).
Another argument is that politicians are not professionally trained for diplomatic jobs; therefore they lack the know-how, the skills, and the patience to carry out that function effectively which consequently produces unfruitful results. Some of them might be misinformed, or may not know enough about a particular subject and this may actually limit the capacity of which they can discuss specific issues in detail (Dunn, 1996, p.254c).
Furthermore, there is the challenge of lack of knowledge of the other party’s point of view or miscommunication; this is especially common when leaders from different cultural backgrounds are involved in a summit and interpreters have to be used. As Leguey-Fellifeux states: “Clashes of personality may complicate summit interaction, but cultural misconceptions are a more likely occurrence, as chief executives have less experience in cross cultural communication” (2009, p. 302). Negotiations in circumstances like this might prove very difficult. In addition there is also the risk that agreements that were reached during such meetings are difficult to disapprove because they were sealed by the heads of governments themselves (Dunn, 1996, p.257c).
Furthermore, summitry has been seen as a waste of time, effort and resources. It takes a lot of time to prepare, and attend a summit and it also takes a lot of resources to make sure that a summit is successful. Resources that could be used for other important things will be used to pay for security, meals, and luxury accommodation for these politicians. An associated disadvantage is the risk of travel, accidents could occur, and lives could be lost, also, illness could develop due to causes such as the weather and all sorts (Dunn, 1996, p.261c).
Over the year’s summitry as a method of conducting foreign relations has come to stay a part of the diplomatic process for better or worse. Even though it is risky, it has indeed contributed immensely to so many foreign issues at stake. Due to its multifaceted agenda, it has provided opportunities for package deals across different policy areas that it is now almost impossible to imagine conducting diplomacy without holding summits (Melissen, 2004, p.195).
In as much as it has contributed positively to diplomacy, it can also be fatal if wrongly carried out as I have enumerated earlier. According to Dunn: “it may create misunderstanding, cause unintended offence and sow the seeds of mistrust” (1996, p.264c). Hence, it should be carefully strategized instead of eliminating it totally as a method of conducting foreign relations.
Summit talks have to deal with specific issues ‘rather than general atmospherics’. According to Berridge et al: “for talks to be meaningful they have to be well prepared; decisions to be taken at the summit have to be formulated in detail already in previous negotiations at subordinate levels” (2001, p.201c). If prepared and conducted properly and with caution, summitry promises high satisfaction. Despite all criticisms, summitry has become the preferred means of international dialogue.
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