Just say no to global summits

With the benefit of hindsight, it is tempting to conclude that the protesters in Genoa, Italy, were right, but for the wrong reasons. The phenomenon of highly orchestrated annual meetings of world leaders should be halted. Those controversial spectacles have degenerated into costly global photo opportunities at which presidents and prime ministers strut the world stage - and accomplish little of substance.

One of the easiest forecasts to make in advance of any annual summit is that the joint communiqué will be disappointingly bland. Thus, the protesters are fundamentally misguided in massing at summit cities in an effort to influence a supposedly powerful decisionmaking operation. Few decisions of importance are made there.

Although the original intent was to focus on economic matters, today's summit meeting at its best is now merely a colorful social occasion. The leaders of the major nations get to meet each other. As in the encounter between Presidents Bush and Putin, sometimes the most useful function is to provide a forum for informal side meetings of pairs of leaders. Holding a formal summit is a very costly way of doing that. Other alternatives are available for such get-acquainted sessions, including the regularly scheduled United Nations meetings.

More-imaginative approaches have been used. When he was vice president, former President Bush found that he could meet many government leaders by attending funerals of important people. Although some observers teased him at the time, he clearly put those obligatory trips to good use.

The clearest evidence was his ability to quickly form the international alliance that successfully prosecuted the Gulf War. It surely was a big help for former President Bush to have met previously and privately with many of the national leaders whom he reached by telephone.

The annual summits have become far more costly and burdensome than the informal get-togethers originally anticipated. In recent years, each government represented feels obliged to send a huge delegation to back up its national leader. After all, who knows what technical questions will be raised? In any event, that justifies a vast array of supporting officials and staff members to be present. These taxpayer-financed junkets also involve a variety of preparatory meetings to deal in advance with a host of bureaucratic matters ranging from security to culinary concerns.

Given the millions of dollars directly spent on the summits - much less the very substantial indirect costs that are generated - it is tempting to perform the simplest of benefit/cost analyses on this phenomenon. Just contrast the huge outlays with the modest benefits that are achieved. Surely the benefit side of the equation does not include the tendency to provoke violent confrontations, which journalists and photographers tend to favor over the coverage of more serious but duller policy events.

Under the circumstances, I offer a modest proposal: Declare a moratorium on global summits and at minimum, cancel the meeting scheduled for the summer of 2002. Let the leaders use modern means to communicate (translation: make a phone call). Use the money saved for some worthy endeavor such as treatment for the sick.

My forecast is that, aside from folks who enjoy taking expensive international trips paid for by someone else, no serious government function will be adversely affected by not holding a global summit meeting next year.

As for the protesters, perhaps they will find themselves taking the more-prosaic summer vacations that the rest of us do.

Murray Weidenbaum was the first chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan. He is a visiting distinguished scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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