High turnover at the G7: does It matter?

24 May, 2017

The leaders of the G7 members gather in Italy on 26-27 May for their annual meeting. Although it is the 43rd time that the club will meet, this year there are more rookies around the summit table than veterans. Only three leaders — Germany's Angela Merkel, Japan's Shinzo Abe and Canada's Justin Trudeau — have attended before. All eyes will be on the new faces, and for different reasons in each case: be it Donald Trump, embattled on just about every front; Theresa May, facing both Brexit negotiations with Europe and an election at home; newly elected Emmanuel Macron, in whom the hopes of France and Europe have been invested; and the host, Paolo Gentiloni, just six months in office after the surprise resignation of Matteo Renzi.

Does it matter that it will mostly be summit novices around the top table of global governance? Despite what media narratives, which overwhelmingly focus on leaders and their personalities, might claim, it does not. In fact, even if all seven leaders (nine if Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the co-presidents of the European Union, are included) were seasoned veterans of international summitry, it likewise would not make much difference for one simple reason: leaders do not actually make much of a difference to the outcomes of summits.

Individual leaders matter much less in international summitry — and, indeed, international politics as a whole — than we assume. This speaks to a well-established debate in the social sciences over the relative impact of structure and agency as the causes of events. When it comes to the big questions of global governance that the G7 concerns itself with — terrorism, migration, the environment — no particular leader has the ability to steer the course of events. Despite the trappings of grandeur in which we dress our national leaders, on the world's stage they are far less powerful than we admit.

A second reason why it does not much matter that it is mostly newcomers around the G7 table is that the summit has been prepared well in advance by each country's public servants. The summit's agenda and its outcomes are negotiated over the course of the year leading up to the summit by bureaucrats. The big, formal leaders' declaration — the communiqué — that concludes the meeting is not written by the leaders, but rather is the product of months of work by their personal representatives, their sherpas. By and large, the role of the leaders is merely to give their blessing to the work that has been done in advance for them.

A third reason why the relative inexperience of the leaders around the G7 table is not so important is that the G7 itself is of less relevance than it once was, now usurped by the larger, more inclusive G20, particularly when it comes to economic policy.

This is not to say that face-to-face diplomacy at summits does not matter. It does. Summits are critically important for developing relationships and helping to steer the wider governance agenda. Moreover, they are opportunities for leaders to cast themselves as statespeople in the eyes of their domestic audiences back home. But no matter how much the media's coverage focuses on the leaders and their personalities, they do not matter anywhere near as much to the outcome of the summit as that focus would suggest.

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About the author(s)
Tristen Naylor
Departmental Lecturer in Diplomatic Studies