In the past two decades, one of the more significant developments in world politics has been the emergence of a new system of international institutions centred around the annual summit of the world's seven largest industrial democracies and the European Community. This summit system was created in 1975 as the major Western powers, following the failure of the existing United Nations and Atlantic organizations, searched for an effective institution to manage a concentrated succession of severe threats to the existing international order. Some of these threats came in the economic domain, in the areas of exchange rates and macro-economic policy (with the collapse of the Bretton Woods regime in August 1971), multilateral trade (with the stalling of the Tokyo Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations launched in 1973), and energy and North-South relations (following the OAPEC oil embargo of October 1973). (1) Others came equally in the political realm, in the areas of democratic governance (with the spread of Eurocommunism in Italy, Portugal, and Spain in the mid-1970s), nuclear proliferation (with the Indian nuclear explosion in 1974), and regional and/or global security (with the ultimate American defeat in Vietnam in April 1975). (2) This comprehensive assault on the existing international order created for all major industrial democracies the new domestic challenges of ‘stagflation' in the economic sphere and a larger 'crisis of governability' in the political realm.
From its visibly modest beginning as a low-key, one-time event in November 1975, the summit quickly acquired a highly institutionalized character, even if it was not organizationally entrenched. During its second seven-year cycle, beginning in 1982, it spawned an ever growing network of subordinate ministerial-level institutions in the fields of trade, foreign policy, and finance, and official-level bodies in these and other subject fields. From its debut as an overtly economic summit, focused on the central ongoing issues of macro- economic policy co-ordination, trade, and North-South relations, it moved to address openly major global issues in the microeconomic, political, and security realms, with a particular emphasis on the new issues on the international security agenda. With its growing institutional depth and policy breadth, the summit soon became an increasingly efficacious forum for setting agendas, arriving at agreements, implementing activities, and adjusting the practices of constituent and outside national governments and international organizations.
In acquiring this important role in shaping global order, the seven-power summit system converged with, complemented, and competed with an impressive array of older, organizationally grounded international institutional systems. The oldest and most entrenched was the United Nations family of institutions created from 1945 onward, with the Security Council at its core, the General Assembly beneath it, and the Bretton Woods and other specialized agencies arrayed around. The second major system was the Atlantic family of institutions started in 1949 and centred upon the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and such separate functional agencies as Intelsat and the International Energy Agency. (3)
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