OVER the past few years, economic summits have become television sound bites and ``photo ops,'' with very little economic good accomplished. ``They've not been very effective,'' says Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. ``They've mainly been pretty good at endorsing drafted communiqu'es,'' says the Texas Democrat. ``They are not as effective as they once were and ought to be,'' agrees Lee Hamilton (D) of Indiana, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee.
This weekend President Bush and the leaders of the six other largest industrial nations will have a chance to reverse recent history. The heads of government of West Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Britain, Canada, and the United States will meet under the fireworks in Paris where the French will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. (French and Japanese summit agendas, Page 3.)
On the official economic agenda are third-world debt, trade issues, the need for structural reform within each of the seven summit countries, and continued economic cooperation. The leaders will certainly focus on third-world debt at a dinner French President Fran,cois Mitterrand is giving for 25 leaders from nonsummit nations, including such countries as Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.
It is also likely President Bush will brief the other leaders on his trip to Poland and Hungary. President Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl have also made recent trips to Eastern Europe. The leaders are likely to discuss what economic programs they would like to support and ways to bring the East bloc into the international system.
US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady defended the agenda last week when he told a small group of reporters: ``The world economies are functioning very well, so to change the throttle settings now wouldn't make any sense.''
A major part of the summit will be political, involving discussions about the environment and the drug crisis. One White House aide calls this year's meeting ``the green summit.'' One reason for the emphasis: It is an area on which every leader can agree, including Prime Minister Thatcher, who sometimes is at odds with her counterparts. Mr. Brady said the drug issue is on the schedule, since the problem has hit Europe ``more forcefully than before.''
But some people would have a different agenda for the summiteers. At a congressional hearing before the Joint Economic Committee last week, C.Fred Bergsten, a former Carter administration official, said the US should pursue a ``second Plaza agreement.'' (The first Plaza Agreement in 1985 knocked down the dollar's value significantly.) Mr. Bergsten, now head of the Institute for International Economics, believes that without such an accord, the US trade deficit will rise again, leading to a recession and a rise in protectionism.
Jeffery Sachs, a Harvard economist, says the summit leaders should not just look at their own economies. ``I just came back from Argentina,'' he says, ``and their inflation rate is 1 million percent.'' Many of the Latin economies have reached crisis proportions. ``A great deal of the world is crumbling and we have not responded to it,'' he says.
Former Citicorp chairman Walter Wriston would also like the leaders to study third-world and debt-related issues. But Mr. Wriston, at the helm of Citicorp when many of the loans to Latin America were made, would like to see a different approach.
``We need to get some of the facts on the table about the world situation,'' Wriston says. What kind of facts? ``I was pretty astonished to learn that many congressmen did not know that Americans hold only 30 percent of Mexico's external debt. Yet Congress is telling us how to handle the situation. If someone had some data, it might be useful.''
Lawrence Summers, a former economic adviser to Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, says he thinks the leaders should focus on the US budget deficit. The other summit leaders should ``impress on President Bush the importance of doing something,'' says the Harvard economist. (Indeed, the US deficit will be on the agenda.)
In the omnibus trade bill of 1988, Congress indicated it was worried that the summits were being wasted as well. Congress urged the President take along the US Trade Representative (USTR) to the high-level powwows.
Senator Bentsen wishes President Bush had Carla Hills, the current USTR, with him, since trade actions will be discussed.
``We need more than a pledge toward completion of the Uruguay Round (the trade talks now going on under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade); we need substantial commitments on the US agenda,'' Bentsen says.
But Robert Hormats, vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs International, and who helped organize the first eight summits, says the best summits put forward relatively few proposals and initiatives despite pressure from different constituencies. ``Remember summits are not for reaching technical decisions, but leadership events to move issues forward and set an agenda,'' says Mr. Hormats.
Hormats says this year's summit will provide the US with a forum to build additional support behind the Brady Plan on third- world debt. The plan envisions debt and debt-service reductions for the borrowing countries as opposed to new lending. The Brady Plan received a boost this weekend when the major international banks and Mexico said an agreement was close on ways to reduce Mexico's debt by $35 billion, saving Mexico $3 billion a year in capital outflows.
Past summits have been catalysts, leading to changes in the international monetary system and economic cooperation. In 1978, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt agreed to speed up West German growth if President Carter would decontrol oil prices. ``The summit leaders are like the board of directors of the world economy,'' Mr. Bergsten says.
Whether this summit will be remembered for its Bastille Day fireworks, or for something more substantive is now up to the participants.