• John Kennedy

The problem with summit diplomacy

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Last Saturday, President Trump announced he would no longer consider hosting the 2020 G7 Summit at his golf resort in South Florida. Though publicly changing his mind based on the criticism received from the “hostile media” and their “Democratic partners,” the president’s original decision to host the summit in Doral, Florida clearly ran the risk of prompting ethical questions, along with violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution (1). However, beyond the legal implications of this venue choice, what would the diplomatic consequences have looked like if world leaders were to arrive in Miami next June? Blundering into issue after issue, President Trump somehow (albeit unintentionally) manages to constantly open the national debate on the importance of certain fundamental political norms, as well as basic American values. Admittedly taking the bait, I wanted to explore the development of summit diplomacy throughout the 21st century, and why this so-called “diplomacy at the highest level” will remain largely ineffective and potentially dangerous in the absence of collective reform.

The idea of summit diplomacy is not a new phenomenon. Far prior to the outbreak of World War II, emperors and kings would engage in open communication on bilateral agreements, treaties, and other settlements. In fact, perhaps one of the earliest forms of coercive ‘ultimatum’ diplomacy can be traced to the Road of Canossa story a thousand years ago. Recently however, the first use of the word, “summit,” came from the Geneva Summit in 1955 where the leaders of each of the “Big Four” countries (U.S., France, U.K., U.S.S.R.) met to primarily discuss the issue of German reunification. As the four men came together in July of that year, everyone expected little in terms of a successful outcome, and indeed the talks failed to come to a real solution. However, most accounts would agree that the overall atmosphere was cordial, pleasant, and restored optimism in cooperation during the Cold War (at least until the Suez Crisis in 1958). Following Geneva, history shows that many more of these diplomatic summits followed, including pivotal meetings like SALT I (1969) and II (1979), Nixon’s landmark visit to China (1972), as well as the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel (1978). The term, “summit diplomacy” has since been defined as any face-to-face meeting involving executive participation – what David Dunn aptly calls “diplomacy at the highest level.”(2)

Today, international summits like the G7 are little more than grand media spectacle. More frippery than fulfillment of tangible solutions, these meetings set the wrong priorities with what little political time, capital, and resources each member is willing to spend. What is supposed to be comprehensive action from the top figures of powerful governments is just dull banter between prominent people who lack the knowledge of complex matters that a professional diplomat would have. As a result, these meetings pass a very general communiqué with little to no firm commitment or legal binding (assuming it had not already been drafted and approved months before the summit). Instead of the informal and honest discussion that brings real solutions, summit diplomacy has become far too concerned with formalities and loose commitments to one another. While diplomatic protocol is deeply important, summit diplomacy in the past twenty years seems to be more concerned with ostentatious ceremony than it is with solving global issues.

Of course, there are certain benefits that can come from summit meetings. Notably are the interactions between heads of state and government. Outside the political theater of the G7 formal session, leaders interacting with one another can gain a better sense of their personality, as well as what issues they are passionate about solving (such as the Chirac-Bush cooperation in Lebanon). Furthermore, the symbolic meeting of world leaders on a particular subject may well pressure bureaucrats in their home country to pick up the pace on issues they would have otherwise put off. In addition, a recent study by Daniel Druckman and Peter Wallensteen shows that regarding the history of summit diplomacy, there is a clear correlation between the frequency of summits and longer periods of peace – especially when examining U.S. and Russia relations over the past few decades (3). However, I find that the most important part of summit diplomacy these days is its inherent norm-setting quality. By setting a standard of a cordial meeting once a year (sans when the G8 decided to kick out Russia), it proves a common value between states of meeting together to work on something bigger than themselves. Even when Trump arrives ready to play the aggrieved victim.

Despite the advantages of modern summit diplomacy, the persistent problem of its basic goal remains. Now, what about potential solutions? First, leaders must agree to dampen the intense media coverage of these summit meetings. Sure, they might be historic, but unless Trump does indeed decide to host the G7 in Doral, all that the cameras will pick up is a lavish round table and beaming politicians in an awkward group photo. Instead of rolling out the red carpet, leaders should enter ready to solve significant issues, while downplaying the notion that anyone can leave a three-day meeting with substantial foreign policy success. Leave the hundreds of aides and media consultants back home and bring a firm resolve instead (plus some professional diplomats).

Moreover, summit leaders must agree to streamline the meeting agenda. By taking on smaller or fewer feats in their brief encounters with one another, their interactions will be far more effective and harmonious. At the same time, they can leave the bigger, more complex issues to their top diplomats and economic advisors.

High- level diplomacy can be much more effective in the right conditions, and with the recent G7 venue situation, this is the time for that conversation to start.

This article was written by John Kennedy.

Contact him at johnkennedy@ucsb.edu


(1) Katie Rogers and Eric Lipton, “After Criticism, Trump to Select New Location for G7,” The New York Times, October 19, 2019, sec. U.S., https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/19/us/politics/trump-doral-g7.html.

(2) David H. Dunn, Diplomacy at the Highest Level: The Evolution of International Summitry (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996).

(3) Daniel Druckman and Peter Wallensteen, “Summit Meetings: Good or Bad for Peace?” Global Summitry 2, no. 2 (December 1, 2016): 71–92 https://doi.org/10.1093/global/gux001.

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