Summits between state leaders that have no tangible outcomes are frequently considered a failure and a loss of resources and time. This post will provide a brief account of the arguments for and against the importance of summit meetings even when they have no tangible outcomes. It will argue that their most important function is symbolic, serving as a necessary platform where nation states interact and discuss, creating the basis for exchanges of points of view and mutual understanding. So, even if no tangible outcomes are evident of any particular summit, its occurrence usually plays a positive role in interstate relations.
Summits build trust. But can they be harmful?
From summits between the main contending powers during the Cold War, to those of today (such as the one between the leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un and the former US president Donald Trump in June 2018), politicians have come to value them for their symbolic importance.
Summit meetings serve the purpose of demonstrating that a government is busy doing something about an issue. Furthermore, they contribute to the exchange of views between leaders, leading to the building of trust and mutual understanding, which constitute a basic requirement to address any issue at the interstate level.
It is in this context that one should interpret the UN Secretary General’s statement during the 2009 UN Summit on Climate Change in New York on 22 September 2009 when he pointed out that the leaders’ words had ‘been heard around the world’. A statement that was quickly followed by the comment ‘let your actions now be seen’. This evidence that summit discussions are perceived as the first step towards dealing with a topic, which expresses their important symbolic value.
However, it is also often said that summits can be harmful to interstate relations if no tangible outcomes are reached. The lack of such outcomes frequently leads to negative perceptions not only of summits themselves, but of the political leaders involved in them who are accused of bearing the main responsibility for the perceived failure of a summit. Such perceived failure is frequently explained by politicians’ lack of professional diplomatic skills, or lack of the knowledge, skills, and patience needed to discuss complex issues.
Furthermore, as they are under the pressure of time, and are bound by expectations from the public at home, leaders might be tempted to avoid making significant compromises. Consequently, summits between state leaders are also frequently perceived as a political risk that, if they do not produce visible results, are not worth the allocated human and financial resources.
However, most of these arguments against summitry can effectively be dealt with. Not least because leaders are nowadays more engaged in managing global issues and are regularly briefed by their diplomatic services and policy advisors.
Furthermore, it can safely be argued that it takes time for the positive outcomes of a given summit to become visible.
Summits that brought changes
The history of the Cyprus–Egypt–Greece summits serves as an obvious example. What started in 2014 as a summit focused mainly on energy cooperation, eventually expanded to include areas such as economic cooperation, security, tourism, and migration. The increasing perception of the need for cooperation and the growing mutual trust between the parties, eventually led to the establishment of a Permanent Secretariat to maintain ‘the uniqueness of the relations’.
More than evolving into an annual event, this trilateral format of cooperation was promoted with other like-minded countries in the region, Jordan and Israel included. The summit thus became the institutional basis for a long-term trust-building process that eventually led to important diplomatic breakthroughs.
This also seems to be the case with the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 13 August 2020, and Israel and Bahrain via the declaration of peace from 15 September 2020. The agreement, which was characterised as ‘historic’ by the participants, did not lead to any Israeli–Palestinian rapprochement. However, it was due to linkage diplomacy demanded by the UAE that Israel at least suspended the annexation of large parts of the West Bank.
Summitry as a method of conducting international relations will remain a part of the diplomatic process, not least because it fulfils an important symbolic role and provides a fundamental space for trust building between leaders and states.
While it might not always be easy to detect the tangible outcomes of any particular summit, the success of a summit should always be assessed in the long run. If prepared properly, most of the arguments against summitry can be dealt with.
Mr Giorgos Samouel is a Cypriot diplomat and an MA/PGD in Contemporary Diplomacy programme graduate.