Taming Summit-Mania: Ineffective Communication in Global Dialogue

By Store, Jonas Gahr | Harvard International Review, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Taming Summit-Mania: Ineffective Communication in Global Dialogue

Store, Jonas Gahr, Harvard International Review

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 "summitmania." 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 summitmania has us working harder, but not smarter, in global politics.

How, then, do we channel the unfocused enemy of international summitmania 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 intergovernmental 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 interregional 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.

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