Why the world needs the G8/G20

Canada hosted two major international summits this past week. Many in this country openly resented this. The security bill, the largest ever for such a conference, took the bulk of the criticism. Next was the extent of the security itself, which essentially placed a praetorian guard in downtown Toronto. But others openly questioned the need for either summit at all. After all, it is rare, they would contend, that one can see positive effects of the conference resonate back to the population of any nation, with G attached to it or not. What's the point? Why not just call and save the fuss?

Leaders, and by extension, their people, need these international summits, in short,  because there is still no technological alternative to a face-to-face encounter. When George W. Bush met Vladimir Putin, then newly inaugurated President of the Russian Federation, he claimed to have looked deep into his eyes and felt his "soul". Mr. Bush claimed thereafter that Putin was no threat to the United States. Notwithstanding his imprudent and probably flawed assessment of the former Russian President, Mr. Bush touched on something quite fundamental regarding international relations and diplomacy - the essential need to see fellow international leaders in person.

A face-to-face returns a human element to relations, something that a phone call - or during the Cold War, a telex machine - cannot duplicate. Reading the body language of your opponent (or your friend or ally), the intonation in their voice, the quality of their unwashed, unadulterated comments, even simply the strength of a handshake can be of a substantial benefit to engendering a modicum of understanding between parties. Hence why business leaders and deal-makers still often insist upon personal meetings to close major deals, rather than resorting to relatively available technological solutions.

Thanks to immediately available air-travel, world leaders have had the privilege of regularized, international conferences. Within the last forty years it has been possible for them, in addition to frequent bilateral meetings, to meet annually at the G8 and, even more recently, at the G20 summits.

Of course, their diplomats are locked in that two square blocks of New York to sort out disputes all the time. However, while diplomats at the U.N. for the most part head off any potential crisis before it makes even the bottom of a journalists note pad, there is no substitute for having the head of state or the head of government meet with his counter-parts. They make the final decisions, whether they are absolute dictators or elected Prime Minsters, merely primus inter pares. These people are still fallible and human, and must be compelled to see, hear, and experience things for themselves.

But it wasn't always this easy. With the rise of the nation-state in the 16th and 17th century, it became possible for national leaders to meet all.  In those days, however, war, like tariffs and other early economic tools, was a readily available tool of the state, and - to paraphrase Clausewitz - a pursuit of policy by other means. Countries in Europe would make war for trifling, personal reasons, such as the honour of their Royalty, or nobility. While these conflicts had more fundamental roots of course, the result was that major international summits only happened as a result of a massive intra-European blood-letting. The signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, which many historians consider the onset of the modern state system, was one of the first major modern, post-bellum meetings.

The post-conflict bilateral treaty had a long history, of course. What Europe did was to include all interested parties after the conflict and seek to settle as many matters as possible. After all, who knew when they could all meet again at all? By the 19th century, following the decades-long Napoleonic total war, Europe institutionalized multi-lateral diplomacy, and sought to minimize conflict.

The Concert of Europe - made up of the great powers: Great Britain, France, Prussia (later Germany), the Austrian Empire and Russia - sought to minimize their confrontations at several important junctures, where other general European brawls could have erupted. This model worked for a hundred years. Wars still happened (as they do now, albeit rarely between states), but states felt reasonably secure enough through major international settlements to avoid escalating into generalized war.

This model broke down in 1914, only a few years after the last major conference, in part, I believe, because no general meeting was organized. Indeed, the world came literally seconds to midnight in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union sent American President Kennedy two messages over the telex machine: one conciliatory and espousing the language of peace, one declaratory, bombastic and quite dangerous. Kennedy had to guess which one was the real Khrushchev talking. In this situation, neither leader wished to blink and make a call for an international conference. The world was forced to suffer through an agonizing 13 days as a result.

While the G8 and G20 are not a forum for adjudicating or de-escalating potential armed conflict, they do lower the temperature. Economic consultation, given the vast linkages of international trade and commerce, is more important to a state than ever. Little else is tied more closely to a modern state's national security than its ability to trade and maintain a consistent standard of living.

These conferences then fill an important gap between then constant diplomacy happening at the UN and the bilateral emergency diplomacy that is initiated at the onset of an international crisis. By having leaders of the largest economies of the world meet in person, we provide them a forum to smooth over at least two of the main sources of inter-state conflict: economic rivalry and personal rivalry. So while the G8/G20 may seem superficially to be an exercise in pomp and platitude, one must maintain the faith that the alternative would probably make the world poorer, and ultimately less secure.

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