Prof. Andrew Cooper

Alumni Senior Fellow

Research Project at the Centre

The Rise of Informal Summitry with special reference to the G20 and the BRICS: Implications for Global Governance

During my stay at the Centre for Global Cooperation Research I want to study the rise of informal summitry, that is to say forums that are self-selective, lacking charters or constitutions, and without fixed meeting times, physical sites and secretariats. Lacking elements of legitimacy traditionally associated with International Organizations (IOs), above all the United Nations, the ascendancy of informal summitry as a means of building global cooperation is driven by a desire for collective problem-solving under stressful conditions (albeit combined with status-seeking, and in some cases at least a sense of solidarity or like-mindedness). At the same time the scope of informal summitry has expanded substantially in terms of both composition of membership and elements of policy depth. The classic model of informal summitry has been the G7/8. Yet, paradoxically, at odds with the rise of other elements of informal summitry the G7/8 has lost its position as the hub forum of global governance. The financial crisis of 2008 triggered a double-movement through on one hand the appearance of a re-configured concert of powers in the form of the G20, and on the other hand the establishment of alternative potentially competitive but connected groupings. The most important of these is the BRICS (although there are also signs that a MIKTA group composed of G20 middle state is coming into being as well).

My original intention was to examine the phenomenon of informal summitry from the targeted perspective of national leaders. As informal processes, there is a spectacle to the leaders’ participation that is unique (the dinner on the eve of the summit, “family” pictures, the particular body language among different leaders related to close contact, the choice or non-choice of bilateral meetings, the nature of press conferences).  What do these images say about the mixture of status seeking and/or solidarity and like-mindedness? More substantially, does the level of commitment to collective problem solving by leaders fall off over time? Do leaders focus on common deliverables or on their own national priorities? Do they prefer to talk about global policy issues in a more comprehensive vein (Syria etc?) as opposed to focusing exclusively on financial issues? In other words, do they show signs of acting as a steering body, a crisis committee, or as national political leaders catering to particular domestic constituencies and localistic political demands.

Although the themes attached to leadership issues are still very much in need of exploration, I am increasingly convinced that they are not sufficient for teasing out the key ingredients of informal summitry. I aim to expand the scope of my study to factor in a number of other considerations. One theme that I would like to explore is the relationship between leadership and technical capacity. Although the rise of informal summitry is associated with concert-like “club” diplomacy of leaders, the phenomenon also can be connected with the privileging of a not entirely new, but far more expanded, diversified and visible network of technocrats. 

Unraveling the details of the evolution in informal summitry is crucial for understanding the overall trajectory of global governance. Instead of being viewed exclusively as a hub forum, the G20 is better analyzed as a networked focal point. The logic of such an interpretation can be gauged by the connection of the BRICS (as well as the G7/8) to the G20.  Although quite different in motivations, format and projections, in a variety of ways the BRICS revolves around the G20.
Still, if the G20 retains some centrality in commitment of resources and timing of meetings, any sense of the existence of a new set hierarchy should be strongly contested. What is on display is the presence of a different type of horizontal connection. As the role of the G20 shape-shifts from a concert to a focal node, with greater organizational fragmentation, the significance of the BRICS will be amplified. The key to global cooperation in the future, then, will be increasingly animated by the form of engagement developed between two sides of the same coin in terms of the dynamic of informal summitry.


January – April 2014