As the most recent G20 meeting in Mexico comes to an end, many observers will likely argue that the concrete commitments agreed upon are disappointing. However, the G20 is hardly alone in eliciting dissatisfaction. Though often heralded as a new era of international cooperation, the past decade has experienced somewhat of a bear market in effective global collaboration. The World Trade Organization’s Doha talks remain deadlocked, none of the many attempts to reform the UN Security Council have made much progress, and the global community has made little sustained progress on the major global issues of our time, such as climate change and disarmament.

The limited returns achieved by the last several decades of international cooperation are all the more puzzling given that the amount of time and energy invested in international interchange has increased dramatically. We have witnessed an unprecedented growth in new regional, sub-regional, and inter-regional organizations and summits on almost every issue imaginable. Diplomats, experts, and ministers like myself circle the globe to exchange ideas more than ever before in history.

These two divergent trends of increased investment and limited returns are signs that global governance has entered what we might call the age of “summit-mania.” This is an era in which the world community has invested widely to create diffuse networks of uncoordinated intergovernmental organizations and ad hoc meetings rather than investing deeply in the creation of efficient global institutional architecture.

This state of affairs has many positives. In an interconnected but decentralized world, more dialogue and coordination is almost always a good thing, as miscommunication and lack of contact are often key barriers to solving pressing global issues. Paradoxically, however, in certain circumstances the opposite is true. If not organized and structured properly, more meetings may actually achieve less. The process becomes the end, and mere participation becomes a substitute for real problem solving and better global governance.

There are good reasons to worry that the current trend towards summit-mania has us working harder, but not smarter, in global politics.

How, then, do we channel the unfocused energy of international summit-mania diplomacy toward more meaningful global institution building and governance? Addressing this pivotal question is of strategic concern to the entire global community.

Order Without Design

The Central Commission for Navigation on the Rhine is the world’s oldest existing international organization. It was established in 1815 with the straightforward mandate of ensuring safe navigation practices on the Rhine River. In the century that followed, only a handful of further international organizations were created, almost all with very limited and specific mandates.



The contrast of today’s situation with its historic beginnings is striking. Currently there are over 250 inter-governmental organizations structured to address almost every imaginable global, intercontinental, and regional issue. In addition, while large UN conferences—other than the annual opening of the General Assembly in New York—have now become a rarity, there are hundreds of other global summits and conferences. Many are held annually, often with their own permanent secretariats. Moreover, most originated in last two decades. Of the 80 major regional or inter-regional organizations that exist, for example, the majority were established after 1990. In Asia and Europe alone there are more than 30 such associations, with nine separate organizations whose sole aim is to coordinate interactions between the two continents. This number does not even include a long list of ad hoc groupings, coalition of the willing, and civil-society and non-state actors and organizations.

The manner in which organizations and summits of our era have formed is also dramatically different from that of previous eras. In the past, major international events, most often wars, created clear crises and moments of resolution that led to the explicit transformation of the international institutional architecture. The system of sovereign states itself was inaugurated by one of the first modern diplomatic congresses, the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, whose impetus was the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. The Concert of Europe, adopted at the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, established the balance of power system that shaped international relations, to varying degrees, for much of the twentieth century. Likewise, most of the key international institutions, laws, and regimes we live with today—the United Nations (and its precursor, the League of Nations), the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and more—emerged directly from negotiations after the end of World Wars I and II. Disasters, wars, and systemic shifts of power among states have historically thus inspired global institution building and law making.

During the last thirty years, the globalizing world has witnessed transformations at least as momentous as those heralded by these historical turning points. Cross-border trade, consumption, and communication, as well as the deregulation of economic markets and capital mobility, have impacted the day-to-day experiences of citizens across the globe. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War profoundly redrew the geopolitical map that had structured much of international politics since the end of World War II, and this transformation continues with the shift of power towards states such as China, India, and Brazil. Moreover, new information technology has amplified the voice of citizens and groups who previously had much less influence on international relations.

These transformations have drastically increased the need for improved global coordination. The current economic crisis and the recent unsuccessful climate talks are dire examples of communication failures on the international level. However, since recent changes have emerged without a major crisis point, unlike their historic counterparts, the world community has not been forced to the same extent to consciously design new tools geared toward dealing more effectively with these realities. Therefore, the global institutional structure has not kept pace with the social and economic process of globalization. Instead, states have, to some extent, responded by adopting an incremental and disconnected series of coping mechanisms. Put bluntly, we live in a world defined by an increasingly large gap between a deep global society and a shallow international order.

The Trouble with Summit-Mania

The recent expansion in the number of organizations facilitating international dialogue has been a welcome development for many reasons. They expand the webs of interconnection that are the lifeblood of our international order. In the economic realm, for example, the annual World Economic Forum in Davos plays a helpful role in addressing a variety of issues and perspectives that might not otherwise be accessible to its participants. The global response to malaria, AIDS, and post-conflict rebuilding has been greatly improved by the work of a variety of global initiatives and summits. Institutions like the Arctic Council and ASEAN play key roles in solving disputes before they become conflicts and forging relationships among key decision-makers that can facilitate negotiations if unexpected events emerge. The G20 meetings build support and commitment that otherwise would not exist for international development strategies.



However, the multiplication of international ad hoc organizations also poses a variety of much less positive consequences. First, the diffuse and piecemeal nature of today’s global governance has meant that too many of its main organizations and summits lack the clear mandates and transparent decision-making processes necessary to effectively address the issues they are designed to resolve. Take the G20 as an example. It is arguably one of the most influential organizations dealing with international financial and economic coordination. It has become a central stage for coordinating global policy decisions. However, it has no explicit mandate, nor any clear, collective decision-making and accountability mechanism. Instead, the leader of its host nation largely influences the agenda of its conferences.

Additionally, many of the products of summit-mania face real legitimacy issues. In a global political arena composed of sovereign states, the perceived legitimacy of a policy is often based on whether effected states have had the ability to voice their views through sufficient representation in the policy-making process. From this perspective, the G20 again exemplifies the structural weakness of many summit-mania institutions. Even though it represents 80 percent of the world’s GDP, its members only represent 60 percent of the world population and less than 15 percent of sovereign states. This limited representation is problematic in principle as well as in practice, as it subverts the legitimacy of the G20 and thereby hampers its effectiveness.

Take, for example, the G20’s proposed austerity measures in response to the recent economic crisis in Greece. These policies, despite their technical merits, faced widespread distrust within Greece, which did not play a substantive role in their design. The lack of channels for participation in G20 decision-making gives Greece and most of the countries of the world little compelling reason to follow the institution’s initiatives if they are not in these states’ immediate short-term interests. In this sense, far from being luxuries to ignore in times of crisis, perceptions of legitimacy based on representativeness are key factors in determining whether global organizations are able to help steer the world economy toward calmer waters.

Lack of institutional legitimacy also points to a third concern: that the failure to solve pressing global problems of economic security and stability will push countries away from international cooperation and toward new forms of nationalism and protectionism. This tendency arose in the years leading up to World War I, and it has experienced resurgence in parts of the world today. If the issues that summit-mania reflects are not solved collectively, countries will increasingly seek to solve them on their own, potentially strengthening economic protectionism and escalating international tensions.

This potential speaks to the final problem of summit-mania: its significant but hidden opportunity cost. Over-investment in diffuse networks of intergovernmental organizations and ad hoc meetings diverts energy from more established venues, dilutes global focus, and fragments the debate and decision-making processes around global issues. Instead of investing resources and political will into reforming existing universal institutions and building new, robust ones, we have created a poorly coordinated network unequipped to address many of today’s major problems.



Taming Summit-Mania

Summit-mania, in sum, is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. The diversification of forums of global dialogue is necessary in allowing us to deal with an increasingly complex web of interests and challenges. Yet, at the same time, it prevents us from finding common and systematic solutions to many of the global issues of our time.

How, then, should we respond? One thing we certainly should not do is wait for another systemic crisis so great that, as in the past, it has the capacity to push the global community to unite and explicitly restructure international governance. In our era, this mode of institution building is counterproductive. Yet, we should also reject the idea that we must simply accept today’s diffuse and undirected governing system. As the old saying goes, we must strive to rebuild the ship at sea, plank by plank. We need to refine and restructure the existing global architecture so that our various groups, gatherings, initiatives, and mechanisms amplify, rather than hinder, collective efficiency. The crucial question to ask is, “How might we harness the considerable, but manic, energy of summit-mania and channel it into real global governance?” Allow me to suggest a few concrete steps.

First, we must strengthen the foundational institutions of today’s multilateral order. For better or for worse, the core institutions of the Bretton Woods system and the various UN bodies symbolize the norms and practices of international order. Our global system of trade and mobility—and the economic prosperity and relative peace that accompany it—would not be possible without these institutions. The G8, G20, or any other minimalist gathering of states cannot and should not replace the existing universal institutions of post-World War II global governance.

However, the established institutions are in need of significant renovation and updating if they are to continue to play this key role. In particular, if the UN Security Council is to significantly influence our multi-polar future, it must become more legitimate in the eyes of its general membership and the greater world population. This cannot happen without increasing the number of permanent and rotating members over time to make them more broadly representative and reflective of emerging distributions of power. Security Council members have already stated they support this solution. Concerted US-Chinese leadership on this issue, however, is required to move from theoretical declarations of support to the next stage of identifying and testing different concrete models to see which is most functional.

Secondly, we must encourage the most influential organizations of summit-mania to play a more complementary role in events with established bodies such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund. The most promising candidate for helping achieve this goal is the G20. Since its establishment as a response to the crisis in Asia in 1999, it has displayed its potential and influence in building political consensus during the recent, global financial crisis. Though it has no clear mandate as such, there nonetheless seems to be broad agreement that the G20’s prime business should be to address global economic and financial issues, and it should continue to help steer the world economy through the current crisis with the same efficiency it displayed in the hectic months of 2008.

It is a self-appointed group, and we should not seek for it to become an organization that replaces or reproduces the decision-making and functions of existing universal institutions. Rather, the G20 should function more like a brokering house – a space where influential and interested actors brainstorm, debate, and reach consensus on broad road map plans to be implemented by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations. In this sense, its role would be comparable to the ‘green room’ at the World Trade Organization where influential actors explore possible solutions and find common ground. These informal deliberations would help stimulate progress on other key institutional agendas.



Three important global negotiation processes the G20 could focus on in this capacity are: 1) forging agreement on the ongoing Doha negotiations; 2) encouraging a range of stepwise agreements on climate change within the UN framework, such as the one the United States proposed last winter with regard to “short lived polluters”; and 3) testing whether there is extensive support for new disarmament agreements. More informal meetings, such as the gathering of foreign ministers in Los Cabos before the G20 summit in Mexico, could cultivate these types of limited agreements.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, if the G20 is to become more efficient and effective, it needs to reform its basic structure to improve its representativeness and legitimacy. The G20 cannot take the necessary steps to increase its efficacy—for example, inheriting ultimate authority over the International Monetary Fund, as some have suggested—in a context in which its legitimacy is questioned. The G20 itself has explicitly recognized this challenge and has increasingly sought to respond in an ad hoc way by selectively inviting additional countries to participate in certain meetings. Though this inclusion is a positive move, and the G20 is now rather “Almost G30,” is not enough. The G20 should additionally explore applying in a systematic way some of the representative mechanisms used by the International Monetary Fund in order to build a legitimacy rooted in robust representation.

Achieving these reforms will not be easy. The urgent concern of addressing a weakening global economy has continually sidelined internal G20 reform, even when host countries explicitly prioritize the issue. While this choice is understandable, it is crucial to recognize that we cannot afford to allow improving our global infrastructure to slip off our radar. Real organizational reform of the G20 would be a sign of much needed vitality in the world of summit-mania, and it is the single most important investment the international community can make for a stable economic global order. Additionally, a more representative UN Security Council is the best instrument available to prevent global power-games and to minimize future threats such as cyber-warfare and nuclear proliferation.

There is great potential for the United States, Europe, and the BRICS countries to collaborate in reforming summit-mania. In fact, substantive change is likely to be impossible without these actors finding common ground and championing restructuring efforts. It is in these superpowers’ mutual, long-term economic interests to address the current challenges of global governance and take steps to create a more effective and unified international order. Their joint signal of support for real G20 and UN Security Council reform could decisively place the issue on the international agenda.

These measures alone, of course, will not tame summit-mania completely. However, in a world where we must rebuild the ship of international order plank by plank, they are important first steps that will help begin to channel the energy of summit-mania toward more productive and constructive policy-making.