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Categories of summits

Headline news on international issues largely focus on summits – highly visible gatherings of leaders who interact directly with each other to address pressing cross-border issues and come up with jointly elaborated solutions.

Summits, as forms of management of international affairs, are not new. The Concert of Europe that followed the Napoleonic wars in 19th century Europe, worked through a series of high-level diplomatic encounters with the aim to manage the status quo and prevent the rise of new revolutionary processes. Similar in vein have been major peace conferences, such as Versailles after World War One, or Yalta at the end of World War Two, uniting major powers around the same table. Still today in various parts of the world, summits serve as catalysts or facilitators for major peace initiatives, for instance the Geneva conferences on Syria.

The breadth of summits has vastly expanded with the rise of international organisations since 1945, and growing economic interdependence, rising environmental and societal issues in the last 40 years. They now regularly serve to launch new initiatives, such as an agenda for humanity or for sustainability. In other instances, they give guidance on world or regional political or economic affairs, a very useful function in the absence of a world government. In addition to variation in functions, summits, defined here as meetings between high-level national political representatives (heads of states or ministers), also take different forms with varying membership compositions.

Yearly meetings of informal groupings, such as the G7/8 or G-20, are the first, and best-known, manifestations of summitry. The G7/8 and G20 both originally aimed at addressing international economic difficulties - stagnation and inflation that followed the 1970s oil crises for the G7 and the 2008 financial crisis for the G20. The composition of participants largely follows this original aim with countries that carry the most economic weight included in the groupings. Summits of the G7/8 and G20 are hosted by one member country that endorses the role of coordinator and facilitator. Yet, summits mostly consist of collections of bilateral meetings between members and a few plenary meetings with the aim of coming up with joint declarations for future actions at various other forums, in particular formal international organisations.

Meetings of the highest political bodies of many international organisations are the second main form of summits. In this category belong summits of regional organisations, such as the African Union Summit, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit or North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Summit, as well as the European Union Council biyearly meetings. Those meetings involve the participation of heads of states or governments to discuss strategic orientations and the most salient political issues. To the same category one could add high-level political meetings of international organisations, such as the Ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organisation (WHO), where key new instruments of governance (such as treaties) are adopted or key choices regarding membership or directorship are endorsed or voted upon. Representatives from member states are at ministerial level but they attend with a capacity to commit their countries at the highest level.

A third category is made up of UN conferences that have served as agenda setters and been instrumental in putting certain issues, such as climate change, sustainability or humanitarian action, at the top of the global agenda. UN Summits raise awareness and frame global discussions, often leading to the adoption of new binding instruments a few years later. They usually involve heads of state and government, heads of intergovernmental international organisations and non-governmental organisations, as well as actors from civil society and the private sector.

UN Summits have been held on a large variety of issues, including the World Summit for Children (1990), the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994), the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 1995), the International Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), the Millennium Summit on development (New York, 2000), the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005), and more recently the World Humanitarian Summit (Istanbul 2016).

Among all issues, the most consistent track record of action by the UN-conferences has been on environmental issues and the link between environment and development. It began with the UN Conference on the Human Environment that led to the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) (Stockholm 1972). Then came the landmark conference on environment and development, best known as the Earth Summit (Rio, 1992) that launched the Agenda 21, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as well as the Convention of Biodiversity (CBD). The Earth Summit was followed by the World Summit on Sustainable Development (2002 ; Rio+10 ; in Johannesburg) that reviewed the progress of the work agenda of Rio and by the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (2012 ; Rio+20 ; in Rio) that led to the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) three years later in 2015.

All these manifestations of summitry in today’s world make global governance processes very visible, with an explicit aim of attracting world-wide, or region-wide, interest of public and private actors. Yet they also involve a lot of less visible work and processes to prepare the ground for leaders’ interactions and to follow up on their commitments. Furthermore, visibility for some forms of summits, in particular G7/8 or G20 meetings, remains largely limited to group pictures, official dinners and events, keeping most of the key discussions largely out of the public scrutiny.

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This article is from the free online course:

International Affairs: Global Governance

The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies