Presidents and prime ministers of seven of the richest nations of the world have now met in four economic summit session since November 1975. Each time, they have praised their own efforts in communiques promising more jobs, less inflation, growing world trade, and a better deal for the lesser-developed nations and all the poor ones not invited to their conferences.
For example, at the end of the most recent summit in Bonn July 16 and 17, President Carter and the other heads of state said they had "agreed on a comprehensive strategy" covering all the major economic issues facing the world.
But conscious of criticism that the rhetoric was too grand and the results too puny at Rambouillet, Puerto Rico and London, the leaders this time were a bit more cautious: Their commitments were narrow, specific strategies were withheld, and outlines of the problems to be faced were more realistic.
What, in truth do economic summits accomplish? Are they an exercise that raises expectations too far? Do they merely ratify decisions already taken and programs already on line?
It is important to note that some problems get filed in the "too hard" drawer. Thus, the Bonn summit did not come to grips with the overwhelming international economic dilemma of the day - what to do about the plunging U.S. dollar.
Summit defenders will argue that the leaders did in fact discuss, if not solve, the problems underlying the dollar's weakness and the equivalent excessive strength of the Japanese yen and Western European currencies.
It is certainly true that no magic words could have been uttered in Bonn to cure the economic malaise in the world causing the uneasy slide of the dollar. As some see it, that reflects an inherent weakness of the summit process.
New York economist Henry Kaufman, of Salomon Bros., said in an interview: "We should have summits only when there is a reasonable idea that concrete results will occur. It would be more beneficial if the heads of state met in smaller groups and came up with lesser deals, than to raise the hopes of new tablets coming down from Mount Sinai."
To try to measure the success of a summit meeting by attributing specific accomplishments to it is a "serious misconception," according to Richard Cooper, undersecretary of State for economic affairs.
"With very rare exceptions, when you are in a real negotiation, events of this type do not produce decisions that would not have taken place otherwise," Cooper said in an interview in his 7th-floor State Department Office.
Such candor is rare. The hard fact, as another important U.S. policymaker admits, is that "summits are intended to make it easier for heads of government to do things they really ought to do in their own interest, and things that they want to do because it's their own interest."
But if the Bonn summit deserves something less than rave notices, one should observe that none of the leaders is especially strong at the moment, with the possible exception of French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who is resting comfortably after an election victory.
None of the others - Carter, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda included - can guarantee that they can control their own parties, let alone their respective legislative bodies. British Prime Minister James Callaghan, and Canada Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau also will have to call for a national election soon. The Italian political situation is chronically tense.
The U.S. Congress and other legislative bodies clearly have a major absentee role in summitry. In a national Press Club speech just before the summit, Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthat noted that Congress' reassertion of its powers had put "the Carter administration . . . on the cutting edge of a new relationship." He had special reference to the way Congress had balked the White House on energy policy.
But the problem goes beyond energy. The U.S. contribution to the International Monetary Fund's "Witteveen Fund," as well as various foreign aid and commodity proposals, are hung up in Congress. How to get Congress more involved in summit preparations - with a view that exposure to the problems will generate increased support - is being studied at a staff level.
Therefore, American offficials decided well in advance to seek limited goals from the Bonn meeting, centering around getting more German economic growth and a smaller Japanese trade surplus. The others clearlly would continue to press for U.S. measures on energy and inflation that would work indirectly to lower the U.S. trade decifit and bolster the dollar.
What a summit can do, according to Cooper and others, is to give an international "impetus" to such domestic economic considerations. The consensus of the other powers at Bonn thus pushed Carter into a promise that he would do something about U.S. inflation and excessive energy consumption.
Similarly, the conviction among the others that West Germany needed to expand its domestic economy by at least one percent additional real growth and that Japan needed to trim its fantastically heavy trade surpluses brought promises along those lines from both of those countries.
Although some action was inevitable on all of these fronts, the high visibility given to key problems - slow economic growth in West Germany, excessive energy consumption in the United States, a staggering exports surplus in Japan - provided an indefinable extra something for tackling them.
Perhaps it was defined best by West Germany's economics minister, Count Otto Lambsdorf, when he said in advance of the Bonn summit that it was "condemned" to abe a success.
In a way, Lambsdorf was saying that the German government, which really did not believe that its internal economy should be expanded, risking inflation, knew that it would have to put something on the table at Bonn to extract commitments from the U.S. to reduce energy consumption and from the British and the French to abandon some trade protectionist attitudes. The package deal was shaping up.
Ambassador Henry Owen, a former State Department official and Brookings fellow who manages summit affairs for Carter, sees the German acceptance of a higher rate of growth as the centerpiece of the package. He lists the German pledge to add about $6 billion worth of expansionary programs, to be followed by a similar push by Japan, as the first of four major accomplishments at Bonn.
The German program soon will got to the Bundestag, and Japan is expected to call a special session of the Diet in October when Prime Minister Fukuda will outline the exact dimensions of the Japanese effort to assure a growth rate of 7 percent.
The three other accomplishments cited by Owen include the pressure created by the summit to advance multilateral trade negotiations which had been going on in Geneva; the pledged by Carter to reduce both energy consumption and inflation in the United States; and a restaement of a commitment by the rich countries to help the poor, especially in the development of their oil resources.
What is very tricky to assess is how much or how many of the Bonn achievements - however they are measured in the absolute - would have taken place anyway.
On a recent National Public Radio program, Owen admitted that "we worked hard to diminish" the expectations of the Bonn summit, to avoid the disappointments generated by earlier meetings - notably the 1977 summit at London, which produced German and Japanese growth targets that they failed to achieve.
This time, carefully orchestrated presummit briefings held out the idea that the Bonn summit goals would be less ambitious. This cloaked the final summit communique - containing modest but specific agreements - with the aura of comparative success.
It is reasonably clear that the American presummit game plan did not call for more than an extra one present push by the Germans, and that's what they agreed to.
But whether the German program actually will increase their real GNP by one percent is another matter.
"The push I want may not be realized at all because people save and buy Government bonds," Finance Minister Hans Matthoefer said during an interview in Bonn. There is a good reason: With inflation at a mere 2.4 percent and interest rates at 6.4 percent, there is an incredible real interest return of 4 percent.Hard-money conservatives are normally deliriously happy with a real rate of 3 percent. in the United States and many other places, the real return is zero, or evern a minus.
Even if German assumptions of the potential results of their expansion program prove too low, no one - including the most optimistic Americans - believes that the accomplishments of the summit, in total, are enough to reverse the unemployment trend in Europe. At best, the European growth rate in the next year to 18 months might run to 4.3 percent instead of 4.0 percent, says a U.S. official.
Significantly, the United States did not promise to achieve a specific growth rate for 1979 because to do so it might have had to confess to a realistic possibility of about 3.5 percent, a more sluggish pace than this country has been used to. This is one of the penalties of a frighteningly high rate of inflation and the absence so far of a strong program to deal with it.
In years past, the U.S. was expected to be the leader on growth. Nowthat task has been passed on to the West Germany and the Japanese. But the world economic picture for next year is still grim despite the Bonn summit, although there may be some marginal benefits because of the understandings each leader displayed of the others' problems.
"Societies have much more of a stake in cooperation today than they used to," adds Assistant Secretary of State Robert Hormats, the American note-taker at Bonn. "And the leadership tends to perceive this much better than the leadership did next years ago."
Hormats said in an interview that summits have become part of a "continuum or process" involving other international institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
This institutionalization of the process may not be precisely what Frence President Giscard d'Estaing has in mind, when he suggested the first summit (then for six powers) at Rambouillet, France, in November 1975.
Giscard imperiously thought of summits as tight, secret little sessions, with the press far removed from the scene, where leaders could hash out big problems in splendid isolation.
Since then, Canada has been added to the original six - the United States, West Germany, Japan, France, Great Britain and Italy. Though to their exasperation, the lesser states of Europe are excluded, Giscard has now relented sufficiently to allow the participation by the president of the Common Market Commission, Roy Jenkins.
As now refined and regularized, the summit and other international economic sessions "strengthening the domestic political process in each country, keeping things moving in the right direction," Hormats says. Cooper agrees, adding that summits - with their months -long preparation - are now a fixture on the scene, even if no agreements should be reached. "If you get agreements, that's a bonus," Cooper smiles.
Owen and Secretary Blumenthal agree that the results of the Bonn summit can be measured accurately only after six to 12 months have passed. The outcome of trade negotiations is still in doubt, although the American belief is that prospects for success are good after some hard bargaining.
The summit declaration had general language on subsidies and "safeguards," two issues of priority importance to the U.S., and it set a deadline for concluding negotiations by Dec. 15. But much hard bargaining remains ahead.
There is little doubt, however, that the summit process helped to push the trade negotiations farther along than they might have gotten. The results of his advance should be seen as early as next month when the bargaining resumes in Geneva.
When the next summit is held in 1979, each leader (or those who survive) will know that his performance against the last summit's commitments will be on everyone's mind. That is likely to give President Carter, in particular, some problems, because of congressional intransigence on his energy proposals, and domestic politicla constraints in dealing with inflation.
"The president comes back from Bonn pledged even more powerfully to do something on inflation," Owen said on a National Public Radio broadcast. "If we go to the next summit without having success in this respect, we will have failed to fulfill our pledge."
But on an even broader question, the relative clout of the big powers among the seven, more time will be needed to sort thing out. To many at Bonn, the forthrightness of the West Germans and the Japanese, and their sometimes blunt criticism of the U.S., seemed to be a "coming of age," a recognition of the reality of their growing power and remarkable achievements since being defeated in World War II.
"Schmidt has always recognized the importance of Germany playing a leadership role in the world economy," says an American official. "The new thing was that the Japanese for the first time recognized that they are the second largest economy in the Free World, and that they must play a leadership role, not simply react to events as they did before."
A perceptive European diplomat notes that "your Mr. Carter, though he was again impressive with the extent of his expertise (as he was last year in London), this time wasn't new. He had some scars on him."
In the view of most Europeans,Schmidt, despite his domestic political problems, has become an established world leader, bolstered by his success in pushing through a European monetary proposal at the Common Market meeting in Bremen just before Bonn.
"Neither Schmidt nor Fukuda can be pushed around any more, and Giscard, with the election behind him, is more confident. And face it, the United States isn't as strong as it used to be," says an observer.
With or without specific economic results, summits should be viewed in a political context. As Cooper says, "A summit is a political act," part of a larger political process which recognizes that decisions once thought of as purely domestic now must be discussed at an international forum - and at the very top level.
For that reason, despite misgivings of some bureaucrats that their bosses will give away too much while making an extra line for themselves in the history books, summits are here to say. They might even become more productive. But miracles shouldn't be expected.