THE ``sherpas'' carried on what has become an economic summit tradition this week. These personal representatives of the leaders of the seven major industrial democracies negotiated for seven hours - until 4 a.m. Wednesday - on the language of the final communiqu'e. The sleepless night was worthwhile. The summit was a success.
Indeed, C. Fred Bergsten, director of the Institute for International Economics in Washington, calls it ``the most constructive since the late 1970s.''
That's because the seven seriously tackled the key issues.
``They tried to hammer out their differences,'' says Mr. Bergsten. ``The fact that they are trying and not just papering over is a big plus.''
As might be anticipated, United States President George Bush agreed. ``It is no small achievement that we came to a positive and unanimous conclusion on so many important and difficult issues,'' he noted in his closing remarks at the summit.
The Seven gave the Uruguay Round of world trade negotiations a good political shove forward. And they agreed to send an international team of experts to the Soviet Union to find ways to help Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev move toward a free market economy.
``That is the most you can expect from a summit,'' comments W. Allen Wallis, undersecretary of state for economic affairs from 1982 to 1989. He was the sherpa for President Reagan during the summits in those years. Summits are not meant to make treaties, he says.
Like many, Mr. Wallis had doubts about the value of summits - before actually becoming engaged in them. He had heard descriptions of them by skeptical journalists as ``a media circus,'' ``just a photo opportunity,'' ``a wasteful pageant,'' and so on. But he changed his mind.
Summits are useful, even if not genuinely newsworthy, he now maintains. They are occasions for heads of government to converse candidly with their peers about subjects of mutual interest. They exchange information and opinions, establish rapport among colleagues with whom interaction is intermittent and often indirect or formal. They set the international economic agenda for the year ahead. They focus economic policy and force decisions.
But the sherpas (and sometimes their masters) lose a lot of sleep in the process. Wallis recalls a summit in Venice, Italy, when he had gone two nights without sleep working on documents. Then he met with Howard Baker, President Reagan's chief of staff, and other brass.
``I was watching you,'' Mr. Baker said to him. ``I have decided you have learned to sleep with your eyes open.''
The sherpas at this week's Houston summit seemed clear-eyed after their long night. ``We regard this as a summit of substance,'' said one of them, probably bolstered by that sense of accomplishment.
Mr. Bergsten remembers the 1978 Bonn summit at which he was a sherpa. The seven leaders from the US, Japan, West Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Canada argued for two hours over specific issues involved in the Tokyo Round of trade negotiations, the round before the current Uruguay Round. Then they told their trade negotiators to go out and get a deal. The resulting progress stimulated world trade by reducing the barriers to it.
The seven leaders Wednesday tried to repeat that success by again, as Wallis put it, telling their trade ministers ``to do a good job.'' They promised in their communiqu'e ``to maintain a high level of personal involvement and to exercise the political leadership necessary to ensure the successful outcome of these negotiations.''
Now that their bosses have given them ``a kick in the pants,'' as Wallis says, the trade ministers are expected to start working on compromises at a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade meeting starting July 23 in Geneva. Negotiations are likely to drag on well into fall, if not later.
The summit certainly didn't bring the Uruguay Round to the end of the road, says Michael Wilson, Canada's finance minister. ``But it is an important step forward.''