High-level international confabulations are traditionally regarded as the pinnacle of diplomacy. However, the spate of summits over the past fortnight has once again highlighted that successful outcomes from such interactions are the exception rather than the rule.
Consider the following: while the summit of the Group of Twenty countries at Los Cabos, held against the near economic meltdown in the euro zone, put out a wordy and action-packed declaration, the sweet smell of success was missing. The group, which together represents around 90% of global output, 80% of global trade and two-thirds of the world’s population, was unable to attain a firm commitment from the 19 European Union members to a concrete timeline for further political and fiscal integration. India, which justifiably admonished European leaders for their apparent lack of strategy, also won praise for its $10 billion contribution to the International Monetary Fund to bail out Europe. However, it remains to be seen if Indian leaders can implement the same twin formula for austerity and growth that they prescribed to their European counterparts to revive the economy.
Similarly, most observers accurately predicted that the much-anticipated Rio+20 conference on sustainable development would fall well short of expectations. Indeed, wiser counsels had begun to lower expectations even before the meeting, which attracted a staggering 50,000 delegates, began. While the conference did call for negotiation of “sustainable development goals” to succeed the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, the absence of any action plan or clear commitments reflects the continuing divide between the developed world, emerging economies and the developing world.
Leaders of group of twenty nations. Photo: AP
These less than successful outcomes of international diplomacy also reflect the limits of summitry, which are dependent on three crucial factors: leadership; an external environment conducive for cooperation; and a common desire among all participants to build consensus.
Leadership (or the lack of it) certainly played a role in these high-level deliberations, particularly in Rio. Some pointed to the absence of US President Barack Obama and key European leaders as evidence of this lapse, others celebrated the growing influence of India, China, South Africa and Brazil, all of whom were represented at the highest level. However, showing up at the meeting is not enough; being able to ensure a successful outcome is the ultimate proof of leadership.
In that regard, the emerging powers came up short. While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh poetically mused “International gatherings are an essay in persuasion”, neither he nor his counterparts were able to prove their power of persuasion. Thus, as Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner for human rights, lamented, “Sadly, the current document is a failure of leadership.”
Besides, the crises over Syria and Iran and the related tensions between China, Russia, the US and its allies, though not directly related to these meetings, also dented the prospects of closer cooperation. A similar contest between Brazil and Mexico over leadership of the green growth concept also dissipated unity.
Finally, the ongoing paradigm shift for development, particularly in the least developed countries, from the so-called “Washington Consensus” to a yet to be established consensus has also made it difficult to find common ground. While the upholders of the traditional model of development appear less capable of imposing their writ, the promoters of the new model appear equally constrained to establish their new approach, leading to a stalemate.
While high-profile international jamborees are crucial to focus global attention on key challenges, they are not always necessarily the best venues to solve them.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New YorkUniversity. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.
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