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Family photos and the spectre of global leadership

By Michael Foley

The ‘family photograph’ is the visual climax of each G8 summit. Each is designed to portray world leaders earnestly engaged with global problems on behalf of a presumptive international constituency. These pictures have a high symbolic value in that they are designed not only to demonstrate that individual leaders can operate in conjunction with one another but also to infer the existence of an upward trajectory of global governance. These high profile meetings are choreographed to affirm the centrality of leadership in responding to global challenges and establishing agendas for co-ordinated action. In offering a host of symbolic and substantive points of appeal, the G8 summits project the image of an apparent cumulative agency which is exemplified in each gathering’s visual point of culmination — i.e. the singularly suggestive moment of world leaders set in close formation facing in the same direction and evoking a sense of concerted international leadership.

Leaders pose for a family photograph at the G8 Summit. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via G8 UK Presidency Flickr.
Leaders of the G8, accompanied by leaders of the EU, gather for the family photo at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland, 18 June 2013. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via G8 UK Presidency Flickr.

However, beneath the synoptic impression lies the basis of a quite contrary outlook in respect to both the meaning that can be ascribed to these gatherings and the dynamics that propel the collective attendance of world leaders. It can be argued that the G8’s rationale of compounded leadership (i.e. assemblages of leaders from leading countries) operates to underline the organization’s intrinsic limitations as a definitive showcase of global governance. This is not to claim that the generic properties of global governance amount to a false prospectus, nor to diminish the effect of those achievements associated with specific advances at this level of organizational development. Nevertheless, when it comes to the heavily weighted emphasis upon leadership centrality that is the signature feature of the G8’s rationale, considerable doubts are raised over the authenticity of its symbolism and the motivations of its participants. Two interpretive strands in particular can assist in disclosing some of the interior tensions that afflict the G8’s projected logic.

First is the conjunction of different logics at work within the same context. In forming a high profile elite with an avowed sense of collaborative action, the G8 leaders cannot avoid providing a material display of the very attachments that routinely militate against the generation of effective international action. At one level, it might be argued that the power resources of these leaders are the essential precursors to the formation of global agendas. But at another level, the G8 can equally be regarded as an epiphenomenon of an international order built upon the established interests of its sovereign nation states — more especially the priorities of the leading powers which confer a preeminent value upon the condition of stability. Thus, G8 leaders inhabit two personas at the same time. Their primary task is to manage the inherent dualism in ways that offer the semblance of a constructive enterprise without compromising their core roles as national leaders — or in the case of the EU representatives their regional focus.

Unsurprisingly this situation fosters a distinctly bi-polar outlook not only amongst the participating principals but also on the part of the G8’s global audiences. Ironically, the positional and reputational value that is routinely ascribed to the idea of leadership in contemporary politics has merely exacerbated the problematic aspects of the situation. Put simply, the growth of global governance bodies has coincided with a systemic trend within states that has been marked by a shift towards a highly developed politics of competitive leadership. While some of its stylistic features have influenced the staging of G8 summits, other elements of its modus operandi are incompatible with an international medium.

The substance of this second strand can best be conveyed by one of the most influential developments in the promotion of leadership value at the national level and in particular within the advanced democracies. What has become known as ‘public leadership’ refers to the way that political leaders now habitually seek to enhance their status and leverage by cultivating a direct relationship between themselves and the concerns of a wider public constituency. In order to compensate for a growing number of structural weaknesses in their traditional and institutional bases, leaders now work to develop direct channels of communication to electorates and continuous displays of public outreach on an ever-widening array of issues. These strategies are designed both to circumvent — and even marginalise — other power centres and to generate alternative resources to strengthen the position of leaders in the formation of public opinion and policy agendas.

Apart from the momentary surge of publicity at G8 summits, individual leaders have few incentives to invest their limited resources with too close an affinity with such a body. They find that the G8 is simply not susceptible to the strategic and operational modes of public leadership. For example, public leadership is strongly associated with the personalised cultivation of alternative political spaces rather than with collaborative exercises within governance structures. Its leadership style emphasises high responsiveness and specific interventionism over long term consensus building. Public leadership also promotes dissenting attitudes and populist undercurrents which are difficult to transpose to an international setting. Finally while this kind of leadership may be adept at such key mobilising skills as the deployment of master narratives and the affirmation of identities, these techniques offer little traction in multiple leader contexts where unifying stories and cross-cultural identities are thin on the ground. Far from offering a wellspring of leadership resources, therefore, an international organization like the G8 can pose serious risks to the customised networks, idiosyncratic positioning and nuanced public profiles of its participating leaders.

As the gallery of G8 summit photos lengthens, and the indictments of lack of delivery and leadership failure become commonplace, serious questions are raised as to whether the regularity of these leadership conclaves indicates the presence of a genuinely evolutionary progression in global governance. It seems more likely that any substantive advance towards a transformative leadership will emanate through a punctuated equilibrium driven by the accelerants of sustained crisis and managed by alternative locations of agency such as city states and transnational coalitions.

Michael Foley teaches at the Department of International Politics at Aberystwyth University and author of Political Leadership: Themes, Contexts, and Critiques. He has published widely, including an acclaimed study of the US Senate and an extensive examination of the cultural influence of Newtonian mechanics upon American politics. He has developed a wide portfolio of interests that include the British politics, leadership studies, constitutional development, foreign policy, international relations, the devices of populism and the role of ideas in political engagement. Work in the latter category resulted in the publication of American Credo: The Place of Ideas in US Politics (Oxford University Press 2007). He is also conducting research into (i) the dynamics of contemporary populism; (ii) the role of new media technologies as a medium of political activity; and (iii) the issue of prime ministerial power in the UK system. He is currently joint editor of International Relations.

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