16 June 1994 - 18 June 1994

The Group of Seven: Role, Legitimacy and Working

Chair: The Hon Michael H Wilson

We met, almost too topically, with the Naples Summit imminent and moreover with questioning of the G7 concept generally in the air as the twentieth such occasion loomed. Urgent preoccupations in New York deprived us at the last minute of our long-planned chairman, Ambassador Hisashi Owada; but Canada stepped admirably into the breach.

We had much discussion on just what it was that G7 summits could contribute but other international gatherings could not. We recognised several possible answers, dependent in part on what sort of event a given summit turned out predominantly to be. Two broad categories were perceived in retrospective analysis (planning and prediction were inevitably less able to guarantee which would be which) - the “getting-to-know-one-another” occasion and the “getting-things-done” occasion, though naturally almost any summit had some elements of each.

There was no doubt room for scepticism about the precise dividend of the personal acquaintanceship aspect, and temptations to equate cordiality with understanding and agreement, or to shape policy just by personal chemistry, had to be resisted. But summits did mostly help to build useful personal trust and confidence, and to reduce the risk of avoidable policy error through misconstruction. There was perhaps special value, in post-Cold War circumstances, in having a forum which regularly confronted the United States President and the main European leaders with the need to talk to one another and to address interacting concerns. More substantively, G7 summits provided an opportunity for the ultimate deal-makers in key governments to address issues which were log-jammed lower down (perhaps because of the inability of any one individual below the top level to make authoritatively the wide cross-topic trade-offs often necessary for movement) and to arrive at bargains with enough of something for everyone to be politically sustainable for all.

It was, we agreed, a mistake to suppose that summits could sort out, to the point of specific solution, complicated issues like trade bargains. They could however move things on, establish the will towards and the direction of solutions, and sometimes establish mind-concentrating deadlines valuable within governments as well as between them. They could help to fix in public perception an improved understanding of international advantages and imperatives, and so create conditions in which heads of government could more easily surmount domestic political obstacles to the necessary global bargains. All this amounted to a powerful and useful mechanism, especially in the trade field - though it inevitably then carried with it some danger of over-expectation of what a summit could achieve, alongside the parallel danger that summits might be expected to address and advance every international problem that either vociferous lobbies or crisis-driver headline-writers might propose. Summit planners needed to be on constant guard against agenda overload.

Judgments about the agenda needed to strike a careful balance in several dimensions. However important a subject, tackling it before it was in some sense “ripe” often set back both the problem itself and the summit concept; but “ripeness” was not a characteristic easily measured. Similarly, summit agendas must not steer clear of what was challenging; but it was unwise to set tests which the gathering was highly likely to fail, for example as making resource demands which no participant could meet.

We noted the tackling of unsafe nuclear power in ex-Communist Europe as a markedly important example of challenge; population growth and migration might become another. Past summits had contributed, from time to time, to achievements of a primarily-political kind, like the support of the NATO response in the near-crisis over the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles and the coordination of response to the Tiananmen killings. The G7 could also valuably pick up subjects which might otherwise lack a naturally-effective forum, like combatting terrorism or narcotics traffic. For the most part, however, the emphasis had been in the past, and would probably remain in the future, upon common economic issues. The record here, some participants argued, was uneven, and summits ought regularly to remind themselves that economies were best managed by markets, not by governments; in particular, the G7 (we observed presciently) was not an apt instrument for the handling of international currency matters. The maintenance of a liberal trade framework amid protectionist pressures was a central task, and one that might become politically more testing - not least in relation to the US Congress - as the monitoring of trade rules increasingly entailed intrusion within countries.

We asked ourselves what core of resolute participants was essential for any particular initiative within the G7. Veto and obstruction, we knew, required ultimately just one, any one; but definite action needed more. We postulated, but did not go quite so far as to endorse, a principle of “US plus one” - the idea that for any strong action to be carried there had to be at least two strong proponents, with the United States either being one of these or else at least adopting a posture more positive than mere acquiescence.

Our debate underlined concern that the G7 should be most careful not to seem to arrogate to itself the possession - or accept attempted conferment on it by commentators - of some special role or right in the general governance of the world. It must beware of becoming an institution, and should concentrate rather upon providing a process available for helping in the tackling of global problems. In this spirit, it needed to be especially careful not to supplant the proper operation or usurp the authority of bodies of wider international membership and function, such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and especially the United Nations itself in the Security Council and otherwise. The G7 should see itself rather, in relevant matters, as proposing tasks or directions of work for some of these other organisations, and as supporting and adding weight to their functioning. There might well be merit in inviting their heads to be present more often, or indeed regularly, at summit gatherings.

We acknowledged that membership of the G7 presented difficulties in more directions than one. Within the existing membership the occasional discomforts of a proportionately over-heavy European component - four countries (of rather varied inclination, moreover, within the European Union) and the Commission’s President might grow more severe with time and enlargement. This particular field of complication aside, should the membership be expanded? Practical arguments mostly told against this - numbers were already large for truly easy interchange of discussion, and for effective deal-making - and so did the “Pandora’s box” consideration: Russia? China? India? then Indonesia? Brazil? There was an underlying issue of what was the key concept - size and political importance? or commonality of nature and outlook, as for example combining substantial size, developed market economy and established democratic institutions? We were mostly disposed towards this latter concept, as essential for any prospect of shared purpose and weight, at least in the economic field. The G7 countries, we were reminded, had three-quarters of world Gross Domestic Product and contributed nine-tenths of World Bank resources, facts which surely conferred some mix of right and responsibility. But a continuing limitation of membership on such lines made it all the more important that the G7 should act sensitively in its relations with others, and should plainly eschew any role as a world directorate.

Russia, we knew, was a special case. The precedent of Russian presence at a G7 summit was already established. It was important both to Russia generally as a great nation recovering from painful upheaval that its weight and standing should not cease to be acknowledged, and to President Yeltsin in terms of his domestic authority that he should be evidently welcomed and heard at the “top table”. In addition, the educative discipline of G7 involvement could have a salutary effect within Russia’s governmental machine. The participation of Russia in the political agenda of the summits should therefore be confirmed; participation in the economic agenda (so far as this could be distinguished) was however at this stage of development both less apt and less sought by Russia herself.

We were conscious of the tension between the risks of over-bureaucratisation and those of under-preparation for the planning and management of G7 meetings. All of us recognised the particular contribution of efficient support made by the gatherings of Finance Ministers, and of central bankers; none of us argued for a permanent secretariat, which might develop institutional instincts. The host country must carry a particular responsibility - particularly in the person of its chosen “Sherpa”, and indeed also at Head of Government level - for preparation, both in the Seven grouping and in ground-clearing bilateral contact. We were minded to want improved arrangements for follow-through, and for continuity; and we noted in that regard a suggestion that a troika arrangement, involving the previous and the next host in special collaboration with the current one, might have merit.

We realised that summits had become major media events, and that this was inescapable. Most participants themselves ultimately wanted direct publicity, and the penalties of this - the risks of touristic trivialisation, and the television pressure for the vivid picture and the soundbite - simply had to be managed. They could perhaps be eased by more investment in careful advance briefing of serious commentators, particularly by the host country on non-national lines. The character of the communique also had a part to play. Some kind of collective statement was unavoidable, and indeed served usefully to provide focus and discipline; but in the recent past communiques had grown too long and artificially wide-ranging. We welcomed the prospect, as we heard, of some reversal of the trend.

In the overall accounting voices of healthy scepticism continued to be heard, and we all acknowledged that the achievement record of G7 summitry was patchy. It would be prudent to review the workings critically from time to time, perhaps after each seven-year hosting cycle. But the great majority of us judged the G7 a valuable instrument, well worth keeping and exploiting within the constraints and sensitivities we had identified.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: The Hon Michael H Wilson (CANADA)
Chairman, Michael Wilson International Incorporated


Sir Roy Denman KCB CMG
Consultant in international trade

Sir Sidney Giffard KCMG
Retired from HM Diplomatic Service as Ambassador to Japan (1984-86)

Sir David Gillmore GCMG
Permanent Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Head, HM Diplomatic Service

Mr Jim Rollo
Chief Economic Adviser, Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sir Nigel Wicks KCB CVO CBE
Second Permanent Secretary (Finance), HM Treasury

Mr John W Crow
Bank of Canada: Governor (1987-94)

Professor William Watson
Associate Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal

Professor Wilhelm Hankel
Reader in Economics and Monetary Affairs, University of Frankfurt

Dr Bernhard May
Senior Research Fellow, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik

Dr Michael Mussa
Counsellor to the Managing Director and Head of the Research Department, International Monetary Fund

Professor Cesare Merlini
President, Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

Mr Takeshi Ohta
The Daiwa Bank: Vice Chairman, (Special Adviser, 1990-91)

Jonkheer Emile van Lennep
Minister of State

Mr Pavel Smirnov
Director, Economic Co-operation Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation

Professor David P Calleo  
Director of European Studies and Dean Acheson Professor, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Mr Geryld B Christianson
Staff Director, Minority Staff Director (Democratic) (1981-87), Senate Foreign Relations Committee

Mr Timothy E Deal
Minister and Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy, London

Professor Jeffrey A Frankel
Professor of Economics and Director, Center for International and Development Economics Research, University of California, Berkeley
Professor Alan K Henrikson
Director, The Fletcher Roundtable on a New World Order and Lecturer in American diplomatic history, contemporary US-European relations and international negotiation, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

Professor G John Ikenberry
Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania

Ms Amy Kaslow
International Economics Correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor

The Hon Henry D Owen
A Senior Adviser to Salomon Brothers

Mr Karsten Prager
Managing Editor, Time International