For about 15 years after the G7 summits began, decision-making took place on two closely-knit levels. One level comprised the heads of government themselves and the foreign and finance ministers who always accompanied them to the summit. The second was composed of a small team of bureaucrats led by the head’s personal representative or ‘sherpa’. Follow-up was entrusted to wider institutions. But during the 1990s, the shape of the G7/G8 summits changed radically. The heads of government detached their flanking ministers and began meeting by themselves. The supporting apparatus, at both official and ministerial level, became much more complex and developed a life of its own. Many more outside contributors became involved both in the preparation of the summits and in their follow-up.
This paper examines the recent development of decision-making in the G7/G8
system. The analysis falls under three headings:
• The contribution of the heads themselves;
• The contribution of the supporting apparatus;
• The contribution of other actors, both state and non-state.
Most of the examples will be drawn from economic activities, but there will also be reference to political ones, especially conflict prevention.
The main conclusions of this paper are:
• The heads of government have gained new freedom by meeting on their own. They contribute independently to decision making by innovation, especially in agenda-setting and procedural initiatives, and by following their political reflexes. Meeting their international peers concentrates the minds of the heads most when this also advances their domestic agenda.
• Most cooperation at the summit still emerges from the work of the supporting apparatus, whether by the sherpa team or the growing network of G7/G8 ministerial groups. The preparations enable the heads to add their authority to work in progress; to induce agreement at lower levels, without acting themselves; and at times to go further than is possible at lower levels. The imminence of the summit concentrates the minds of other ministers and bureaucrats – but will it still do so if the summits become more detached from their base?
• Other actors – non-G8 governments, business and NGOs - are increasingly involved both in summit preparation and, alongside international institutions, in follow-up. The institutions are treated more persuasively and systematically than before. This greater dispersion and transparency is necessary, if the summits are to concentrate the increasingly independent minds of other players in the system. But will it lead to a loss of efficiency?
• The tensions between the greater freedom of the heads, the proliferation of the supporting apparatus and the growing involvement of other actors are not easily resolved and each summit finds a different equilibrium. But the treatment of conflict prevention should follow a predictable sequence.