Analysis: Play It Again - Soon - Uncle Sam
by John Kirton, University of Toronto
Quebec City, April 18, 2001

The Quebec City Summit of the Americas, the third such summit in a process begun in Miami in December 1994, will declare that the process will continue. It will announce that the fourth Summit of the Americas will be held in Argentina three years hence, in 2004.

Further evidence of the enthusiasm for continuing the summit process is the offer, declined by the group, made by the new U.S. administration to host the next summit in the presidential election year of 2004, probably in President George Bush's home town of Houston, Texas. The offer reflects the centrality of the Summit of the Americas and the accompanying FTAA to the President's overall foreign policy vision and a calculation that a hometown-hosted summit would be a domestic political boost in an election year. The choice of Argentina shows a strengthening commitment to north-south balance, given the history of Miami 1994, Santiago de Chile 1998 and Quebec City 2001.

The decision to hold a fourth summit, taken just before the opening of the Quebec City meeting, and to do so three years hence, marks an important step in the institutionalization of the summit process. It confirms the three-year interval and north-south rotation set for the first time with transition from Chile 1998 to Quebec City 2001. Yet, as important as this advance is, it raises questions about why a more frequent meeting schedule has not been approved.

The easy answer is that the 34 democratically elected leaders of the hemisphere suffer from already crowded summit schedules and accompanying summit fatigue. For Latin American and Caribbean leaders, this comes primarily from the many subregional encounters they have long regularly had. For Canada and the U.S., it comes primarily from their institutionalized plurilateral summitry outside the region, notably in the annual G7/G8 and APEC meetings, frequently in NATO and the OSCE and, for Canada, the biennial Commonwealth and la Francophonie meetings.

Yet there is a case for a more frequent schedule of intra-regional meetings. There are few existing subregional north-south summit encounters, such as the regular Canada-Caracom encounters. Strikingly, the three NAFTA leaders never meet regularly to oversee and guide their vast community-building enterprise. Second, as the dynamic of hemispheric community building deepens, there is a strong functional case for more leaders-level governance. Third, by leaving it until 2004, the leaders leave the process political hostage to the vagaries of U.S. electoral politics, especially as the FTAA - due in 2005 - will be boiling on the front burner by then. They also lose the opportunity, should circumstances change, to accelerate the 2005 deadline and thus avoid a NAFTA-like shootout in the U.S. presidential political corral.

Most important, there is the fundamental issue of democracy, several critical components of which will be highlighted by the Quebec City "Democracy Summit." In a hemisphere where democracy is still new and fragile in many places, the personal sense of solidarity, mutual education and peer pressure offered by frequent summits is particularly valuable. The leaders of Canada and the U.S. themselves could well welcome the experience, far apart from the annual G7/8 summit, the Summit of the Americas is their only institutionalized plurilateral summit forum with a comprehensive agenda involving the members all popularly elected democrats like themselves. Moreover, the great triumph of Quebec City - saying you cannot come to the future summits if you backslide from the democratic faith - has little force if there are few such summits to come to in any event. Those in crisis situations contemplating emergency extra-constitutional measures are unlikely to be deterred by a potential erasure in their date book three years hence. More frequent meetings should also enable the amigos of the Americas to inject hemispheric perspectives and the democratic spirit into other such summits - notably the G7/G8, with an important poverty alleviation, and APEC, where the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru meet annually with many leaders whose democratic awareness or attachment warrantees encouragement. Finally, such summits are enormously powerful action-forcing deadlines and awareness-building events, as can shown by the new Interparliamentary Group of the Americas, the publication of the draft of the FTAA text and the thousands of protesters fencing in the leaders. The annual G7/G8 and APEC meetings show that holding such summits annually enhances rather than dilutes their educational, community-building and action-inducing effects.

The convoy-like consensus-oriented process of prenegotiation among personal representatives may suggest that Argentina 2004 is a decision too difficult to change now. But summits uniquely let leaders be leaders - to come together in acts of personal engagement and spontaneous combustion - and cease being prisoners of what their ofificials may have decided in their name. The least the leaders could do is recall the theme-specific precedent of the Sustainable Development Summit of the Americas in Bolivia in 1996. They could easily play that tune again. President Bush's vision of energy cooperation in the Americas and the need for renewable and sustainable paths to energy would provide a compelling theme, especially as the Kyoto Protocol on Climate change has just died. An appropriate location would be any small island country of the Caribbean in danger of being obliterated by sea-level rise induced by climate change. But if not, Houston would work very well, as it did for President Bush Senior and the world at the G7 Summit in 1990. After all, if Russia hosts the G8 in 2003, President Bush Junior will not host a G8 Summit of democratic leaders during his first presidential term. His friends in the hemispheric family owe it to him to let him host a democratic summit - to help bring environmentally sustainable energy to America, the Americas and the world.

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