After more than a year of pandemic-induced restrictions on face-to-face diplomacy, world leaders met again in June 2021 at the G7 Summit in Cornwall, the United Kingdom. The relevance of summit diplomacy was discussed even in pre-pandemic scholarly debates. The pandemic has consequently accelerated the arrival of hybrid diplomacy, which combines physical and digital contact. Yet, multilateral summits arguably remain essential occasions in international relations.
Pre-pandemic, summit diplomacy triggered ample criticism. Although the G7 Summit was celebrated as a vital return of face-to-face diplomacy after a forced shift to the digital world, the relevance of summit diplomacy for current international relations is still worth questioning.
The G7 Summit in Cornwall is an example of a multilateral, serial summit. Multilateral summits are a relatively recent phenomenon, not occurring until the 1970s. So why do multilateral summits persist despite their drawbacks?
A Brief History of Summit Diplomacy
Summit diplomacy is defined as “diplomacy at the ‘highest level’ identified by ‘the level at which diplomacy is exercised, and [which] does not necessarily connote an entirely new form of interstate action” (Plischke 48, 1972).
Summit diplomacy in its current form dates back to the 1950s. Regarding the historical genesis of summit diplomacy, reigning monarchs managed their territories’ internal and external affairs personally and directly. After a decline in its use, summit diplomacy experienced a resurgence following the outbreak of the Second World War. Its popularisation in the media and public consciousness has made it one of the well-known phenomenons of modern diplomacy.
Even before the pandemic, the relevance of multilateral summits for contemporary diplomacy sparked academic debate, with scholars such as Farnsworth urging diplomats to reconsider their utility.
Critics highlight the Western-centrism of multilateral summits, as they originate from Western political thought (Stuenkel, 2017). Accordingly, their voting and procedural mechanisms favour Western states. Moreover, the proliferation of multilateral summits and their consequent administrative burden is an often-cited disadvantage. Finally, the high number of multilateral summits increases the economic and environmental costs of organising such occasions (Dunn, 1996).
Multilateral diplomacy is a complex process that relies on interpersonal relationships to a significant degree. On the one hand, the negatives include clashes of personality, which render negotiations between two politicians more difficult. Let’s recall Donald Trump’s frosty relationship with former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or accusing Britain’s spy agency of wiretapping him during the US presidential election. Furthermore, multilateral summits can create a false illusion of familiarity and mutual understanding.
Despite a proposition voiced by a world leader, any formal decision often requires the agreement of the country’s domestic parliament. Thus, a formal agreement may be spoilt by a domestic disagreement. Moreover, cross-cultural meetings are challenging due to cultural and language problems, often leading to misunderstandings.
These misunderstandings can arise from the translation of key terms included in negotiations. This certainly is not a novel phenomenon – in 1956, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was interpreted as saying “We will bury you” to Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow. Yet, his words were closer to meaning, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in”. Furthermore, ideas and modes of thought can be unique to a nation, therefore impacting negotiation styles. For instance, Chinese negotiators are more concerned with the process than the goal, in comparison with their American counterparts.
On the other hand, these meetings include informal gatherings during lunches and receptions, which often facilitate positive diplomatic relations. Some argue that the most critical issues are often negotiated not under media pressure but informally in corridors and lounges. The informal side of multilateral summits is well suited to forging working relations between world leaders. They are equally appropriate for information-gathering on the characters and personalities of fellow politicians. Since serious negotiations are likely to generate tensions, an upper hand can be gained from favourable interpersonal relations between world leaders.
Furthermore, personal contact adds to interlocutors’ credibility. When world leaders succeed in fostering relations similar to that which existed between Ronald Regan and Margareth Thatcher, a personal discussion between leaders and propositions raised in-person by a trusted partner may increase the credibility of their intentions.
Testament to the importance of face-to-face diplomacy, after another year of crisis and turbulence with Donald Trump, the diplomatic world awaited the first meeting at the G7 summit between newly elected American President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Boris Johnson described the President as a “breath of fresh air”, and the pair of leaders indeed agreed on multiple fields of further cooperation – be it security, NATO, climate change and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. The in-person meeting was crucial because it could have confirmed or shattered mutual sympathies and understandings.
Engagement with Wide-Ranging Topics
Multilateral serial summits have a particular educational value for world leaders. In preparation for the meeting, they are encouraged to look beyond domestic agendas and dominant themes in international relations. For instance, American presidents traditionally paid less attention to Latin America in their foreign policies. Yet, the Summits of the Americas, a series of international summit meetings that bring together the leaders of countries in the Organisation of American States, regularly brings this region back to the focus of American presidents.
Moreover, a broad range of topics discussed renders reaching package deals an easier task. For example, during the G7 Summit in Cornwall, the following issues were discussed: climate change, vaccines, Brexit, the Irish Protocol, and China. When seeking to reach a compromise, the negotiating parties could choose from a broad range of topics to negotiate. For instance, a state can compromise on a point in the climate change agenda in exchange for a more favourable outcome in the vaccination programme.
Given the broad range of possibilities for concessions and compromises, multilateral summits are probably the best suited occasion for serious negotiations. Diplomatic negotiations precede each summit, and the summit itself allows time to return to the table and settle any remaining deadlocks (Berridge, 2015).
Multilateral summits respond to the requirements of democratic politics: public participation. In general, meetings between world leaders trigger media and public attention. Yet, the phenomenon of printed and social media has both positive and negative effects. World leaders present the outcome of negotiations to both international and domestic audiences. A hard-gained compromise might be presented as a one-sided victory in order to gain domestic appraisal. This point-scoring approach damages further harmonious relations between the negotiating parties. For instance, Donald Trump described his trade deal with China as “by far, the greatest and biggest deal ever made for our Great Patriot Farmers in the history of our Country”. However, some were far from convinced that the substance of the deal merited this description.
Nonetheless, multilateral summits are likely to have well-developed and well-understood procedural rules that render them transparent. Moreover, it has become an expectation and a norm that multilateral summits are unique occasions to engage with domestic and international audiences via traditional and social media. Indeed, the media spotlight pressures world leaders to reach a conclusion and present the outcome of their negotiations.
What world leaders say to the press before the conclusion of an agreement is essential for the success of the whole negotiation process. It could be said that during the G7 Summit in Cornwall, big promises were made – in particular regarding vaccines – although gaps in the implementation of these vows persist. What one sees as mere rhetoric is, in fact, detailed promises and commitments. In turn, non-governmental organisations, governments, opposition parties and the media can hold world leaders accountable for their words.
The Attraction of Public Attention
As multilateral summits occur so regularly, less attention is paid to each specific one. Nonetheless, they still tend to attract the attention of the general public, thus serving to frame the world of international politics in its best light, appealing to mass audiences. This is also an opportunity for a wide range of non-state actors to raise their concerns. Third World activists, human rights defenders, consumer rights groups, trade unions, farmers, anti-globalisation protesters and other actors have discovered that summits can be a stage upon which to promote their views effectively.
In addition, non-governmental organisations and think tanks welcome the opportunity to publish reports on subjects discussed at summits. Various non-state actors therefore benefit from media attention, as it enables them to attract attention to their agendas and highlight possible gaps in topics discussed at the summit itself.
Is Summit Diplomacy Here to Stay?
One must remember that multilateral summits are not isolated events. They are the official presentation of preceding negotiations and press releases. Regardless, they represent a unique opportunity to exhibit world leaders, which triggers the mass public’s attention and can be strategically used as a means of public diplomacy on social and traditional media. More importantly, they encourage world leaders to conclude negotiations and present them to international and domestic audiences by a set deadline.
Berridge, G. R. (2015). “Summits” in Diplomacy: Theory and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 184-197.
Dunn, D. H. (1996) How Useful is Summitry?. In: Dunn D.H. (eds) Diplomacy at the Highest Level. Studies in Diplomacy. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Fransworth, E., (February 2013). “Reinvent the Summit of the Americas”, Current History 112, no. 75, 75-76.
Melissen, J., (1995). Summit Diplomacy and Alliance Politics : The Road to Nassau, December 1962. Leicester: Leicester University.
Melissen, J. (2003). Summit Diplomacy Coming of Age. Hague : Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael.
Plischke, E. (Summer 1972). “Summit diplomacy: Its Uses and Limitations”, The Virginia Quarterly Review 48, no. 3, 323.
Putnam, R. D., Bayne, N., (1987). Hanging Together: Cooperation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summits. London: Sage.
Stuenkel. O., (2017). Post-Western World: How Emerging Powers Are Remaking Global Order. New York: John Wiley & Sons.