Do Summits Matter?

ROSL Chairman The Hon. Alexander Downer AC looks ahead to some of the important international summits coming in 2021 and what it takes to make them a success

Put in very broad terms, there are two types of diplomacy: bilateral diplomacy and multilateral diplomacy. Bilateral diplomacy is pretty straightforward but when diplomacy requires a large number of countries to get together to address an issue or a series of issues, that is no easy task. What even career diplomats often forget is that foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy. Political leaders and their ministers operate within the context of their own domestic politics. If they stray too far from that, they could, in time, lose their jobs.

That is what makes diplomacy complicated and it explains why multilateral diplomacy often struggles to be effective.

The institutions of multilateralism like the United Nations and the Commonwealth, are staffed with officials inspired by the idealism of a world working more closely together. So often, that idealism comes up against this brutal political reality. Within individual countries, there is seldom a constituency which matches the idealism of international officials.

This does explain why many multilateral institutions, including those within the United Nations system, struggle to make a serious impact. The challenge is to try to make multilateralism more effective and one of the best ways to do that is to engage the leaders by holding multilateral summits. Summits of several leaders, which were once rare events, have become an important part of the annual diplomatic calendar.

2021 is going to be a year of such summits – and so it should be. We have been through one of the most alarming periods in world history since the Second World War. The Covid crisis far from bringing countries closer together, has led to a fragmentation of the international community in various ways.

It is true the WHO was slow to show leadership in advising governments on how to respond to the Covid outbreak. Why it was slow is a debate for another time. But as a result, governments took it upon themselves to develop their own national responses. This was natural enough and short of a dramatic multilateral initiative it was all they could do. It might have been better, had a summit been convened immediately the Covid outbreak was recognised and a multilateral response developed. In particular, a summit, properly led, could have led to an internationally coordinated effort to stem international travel. That alone would have had a major impact on the spread of Covid.

The Covid crisis, far from bringing countries together, has led to a fragmentation of the international community

Then there has been the issue of the vaccines. Several governments such as the UK and US have invested heavily in vaccine development, others have just hoped distribution would come their way. In the end, nations have put their own interests ahead of the broader global community. Short of a multilateral response, again they had no choice. But once more, an early summit to discuss funding for vaccine development and the distribution of vaccines would have made the process a good deal more manageable than that has been.

These two examples, so stark to us today, do demonstrate that multilateral approaches to global issues are needed. And to drive those multilateral approaches, heads of government have to be engaged. That’s why we have summits.

This year, there will be two key summits in the UK. The first, in June, is the G7 summit, which will also include India, South Korea, and Australia. This is an opportunity for the major democracies of the world to work out how to stimulate economic recovery without destroying fiscal responsibility and creating hyperinflation. It’s far better that these major economies meet together rather than act in an uncoordinated way.

Later in the year, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will host the climate change summit, known as COP 26. This is a classic case of where summitry is a sine qua non. Climate change caused by excessive CO2 emissions, cannot be addressed by one country alone. It has to be a total global effort. The best way to do that, is to get heads of government together around the table – or in this case a series of tables – to thrash out measures that will be painful economically. Because they will be painful economically, the pain will have to be shared in an equitable way.

So there you have it. Summits have their value. But that doesn’t mean they always work well or, for that matter, that they’re always very interesting. A summit needs two things to work. First, it needs a very specific agenda. I’ve sat in summits where there is no particular agenda and the leaders are just meeting for the sake of meeting. Rambling prepared speeches are made, which generate little interest from the other participants. Leaders can be seen playing with their mobile phones as they surf through their SMS, WhatsApp, and email messages, ignoring the pereration of the president of some far-flung land!

Secondly, a good summit needs a good leader, like everything. With a strong agenda and a good leader, a summit can be a truly effective way of achieving an outcome. Summits have made real progress on climate change, they have been effective in addressing terrorism and from time to time they have achieved good outcomes on economic coordination. That was particularly the case during the global financial crisis in 2008.

We can expect summits to become an increasingly important component of diplomacy. Globalisation – which is not very popular just at this moment – is irreversible and to make the wheels of globalisation turn, multinational summits are going to be an essential component of statecraft.

11-13 June 2021

Cornwall, UK

The UK will use its G7 Presidency to unite leading democracies to help the world fight, and then build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future.

21-25 June 2021

Kigali, Rwanda

The theme is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’. Leaders will discuss how to deliver the things which were discussed at CHOGM 2018 in London.

1-12 November 2021

Glasgow, UK

The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.