Do international summits actually work or should we be looking to reduce their role and significance in global governance? In this regard, how often do international summits lead to legally-binding multilateral agreements and treaties? Are there alternatives to international summits that can ensure more inclusive and transparent global policy-making? How can we incorporate greater civil society input into international summits?
In sum, the role of summits in global politics, and more specifically whether or not they are an effective tool or mechanism of international diplomacy and policy-making, is the source of considerable debate.
Ultimately, of course, whether a particular international summit is a success or failure will be dependent on factors like: what type of summit it is (global, G8, G20 etc); the nature of the issue or issues being discussed: the states and delegates attending; how many of them are attending; popular and NGO interest in the summit and the pressure that they can bring to bear on participating governments; and the summit management skills and preparation of the hosts.
However, there are a number of generic problems or shortcomings associated with international summits. To begin with the sheer size of some summits, and the range of different and competing interests involved, makes consensus-building and effective policy formulation difficult to achieve. Moreover, many governments seemingly view summits as occasions to promote their respective national and in some instances party political interests. As a result, the conventions and agreements emerging from summits tend to be statements of intent, rather than legally binding policies and associated targets (Hopper, 2012).
One factor that is arguably crucial in determining the outcomes of an international summit is the nature and extent of geopolitical influence. In other words, the success of a summit is inextricably linked to the extent to which the major powers participate constructively in the proceedings and support the agreement or agreements that emerge from it.
An additional factor that can shape the outcomes of international summits is the role and influence of big business, especially that of powerful multinational corporations (MNCs) and transnational corporations (TNCs). Many of these organisations have become very effective at lobbying governments both in the run-up to summits and during the events, raising concern that such corporate activity is marginalising the views of national electorates.
However, there are advantages in persisting with international summits as mechanism of global policy-making. At a basic level, summits mark a coming together of the international community to deal with shared problems and threats. They provide a forum for dialogue between governments as well as the chance to resolve differences and establish common international norms, practices and values. Of course, without summits, countries will have even greater autonomy to pursue their own national agendas. It would entail that the fate of the environment and other vital matters rested primarily within any voluntary initiatives that states may wish to undertake.
International summits also ensure that non-business issues like the environment, humanitarianism and poverty remain high on the international agenda attracting considerable worldwide publicity and media attention. Moreover, they provide opportunities for environmentalists and other campaigners to exert pressure upon governments and companies to act in an ethical and environmentally sensitive manner. For example, over 30,000 members of NGOs participated in the Global Forum that paralleled the Río Earth Summit in 1992. (Baker, 2006).
Nevertheless, while acknowledging the positive aspects of international summits, we clearly need to continue investigating how they can be run more fairly and efficiently as well as being more effectively integrated into other aspects of global governance. This task is essential if policy formation in important areas like international development and the environment is to be enhanced.
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