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2015: Seven Global Summits That Deserve Your Attention

Author: Stewart M. Patrick, Senior Fellow and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, Council on Foreign Relations
Dec 22, 2014

African Union Expert Brief A view of Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, in the Himalayas (Tim Chong/Courtesy Reuters).


There are a lot of perks to being a world leader. Attending far-flung conferences, it’s safe to say, is not one of them. But however much Barack Obama and his counterparts grouse about jet lag, global summits will continue to play an indispensable part in governing an unruly world. Even when overly choreographed and scripted, these events give presidents and prime ministers a rare opportunity to establish a personal rapport, speak candidly on tough items, and break logjams to international cooperation. Herewith, a calendar of the seven summits to watch in 2015.

1. Summit of the Americas

For the seventh time since 1994, leaders of the Western Hemisphere will meet in April for their triannual confab, on this occasion in Panama. Established to promote democracy, growth, and security in the region, the forum has increasingly become a symbol of Latin America’s willingness to stand up to the United States. At the last Americas summit—in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012—the United States was in the hot seat for its perceived failure to consider more creative approaches to the long-running war on drugs, which many Latin Americans blamed for high levels of crime and violence in their countries. The 2015 summit seemed destined to experience similar tensions, particularly after Latin American leaders disregarded longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba, by insisting that Raúl Castro be invited to the Panama summit.

All that changed on December 17, when President Obama announced a softening U.S. stance toward Cuba. The prospect of gradual normalization between Washington and Havana should improve U.S.-Latin American relations. Neighbors of the United States will also be cheered by recent Obama administration shifts on drug policy, including a greater focus on public health approaches at home and more tolerance for decriminalization experiments abroad.

2. Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (RevCon)

Seven decades after atomic weapons were used for the first (and so far only) time, the 189 signatories to the NPT will gather in New York in May for the latest RevCon, which meets every five years. The atmosphere will be chilly.

Back in 2009, President Obama’s utopian Prague speech envisioned a world free of nuclear weapons. The following year, his administration helped engineer a successful 2010 RevCon that promised progress on the NPT’s three pillars—non-acquisition by new states, access to peaceful nuclear energy, and disarmament by nuclear states—as well as a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. The United States followed this up with a successful New START agreement with Russia.

How things have changed. The 2015 conferees will convene amidst growing pessimism about whether the NPT can survive the strains produced by an expanding North Korean arsenal, Israel’s anomalous position as an undeclared nuclear state, an accelerating nuclear race in South Asia, stalling by nuclear weapons states in meeting their Article 6 disarmament obligations, and the deep freeze in bilateral relations between the United States and Russia. The fate of the NPT—and the outcome of the RevCon—may well depend on whether Iran andthe P5+1 (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), which recently extended their negotiations, can finally reach agreement on the future of Iran’s nuclear program.

3. Group of Seven (G7) summit: On June 6–7, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will host other leaders of the world’s richest democracies at Schloss Elmau, a luxury castle (appropriately enough) in the Bavarian Alps. This marks the second straight year that the G7 nations—Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, joined by the EU—will meet withoutformer G8 partner Russia, suspended in March 2014 for seizing Crimea and fomenting separatism in Ukraine. The G7 has exhibited surprising resilience, serving as a useful coalition of the likeminded, advanced market democracies, at a time when the post-1945 liberal international order is under increasing strain.

Germany’s announced priorities for the summit include promoting macroeconomic coordination, enhancing energy security, protecting the marine environment, fighting global diseases like Ebola, and empowering women worldwide. Important objectives, all. But the summit’s greatest value may be symbolic—namely, its embodiment of Western solidarity at a time of global turbulence.

4. Opening of UN General Assembly (UNGA)

From September 15–28, world leaders will descend on New York to open the seventieth session of the UNGA, snarl Manhattan traffic, and (if the past is prologue) deliver a few colorful jeremiads from the UN podium. Beyond the usual atmospherics, the special session will focus on what the world has done—and has left to do—to fight global poverty. Leaders will celebrate the world’s progress—uneven, but nonetheless impressive—in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000, which are set to expire at the end of 2015.

More importantly, they will approve an even more ambitiousset of follow-on objectives—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), designed to be both “people-centered and planet-sensitive,” in the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. As outlined in his recent synthesis report [PDF], the proposed SDGs envision seventeen goals (compared to only eight MDGs) and a whopping 169 targets, covering everything from reducing inequality to halting biodiversity loss.In the run-up to September, we can expect intense battles between wealthy and poorer nations about how best to define and alleviate poverty—and between diplomats who want to trim the long list of targets and NGO advocates determined to preserve it.

5. Group of Twenty (G20) leader’s summit

On November 15–16, leaders of the world’s most important developed and developing countries will convene in Antalya, Turkey, which will hold the rotating chair in 2015. In contrast to the “back to basics” approach of the G20’s 2014 Australian chair, the Turkish government has signaled its intent to tackle a broader range of global challenges—including climate change, energy, trade, development, and investment.

Ankara’s ambitions will discomfit some G20 members—including China and the United States—that have long favored a narrow G20 agenda focused on macroeconomic coordination and financial regulation. But there is intuitive appeal in broadening the ambit of the G20, which is the only forum where leaders of the biggest advanced and emerging states meet exclusively. Moreover, leaders will inevitably feel compelled to discuss the major issues of the day, whatever is on the formal agenda. Turkey’s plans add even more justification for creating a G20 foreign ministers’ track, which might run alongside the current finance ministers’ meetings. The main wild card at the G20 summit, however, may be the increasingly autocratic and erratic behavior of Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

6. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit

Back in 1993, Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans dismissed APEC as “four adjectives in search of a noun.” Two decades later, this heterogeneous, twenty-one-member forum of dynamic Pacific rim economies has become an indispensable multilateral institution at both the economic and, more surprisingly, political levels. With the World Trade Organization stuck in the doldrums, APEC has become a venue for plurilateral trade liberalization. But it also serves a geopolitical purpose, as a way to anchor China into global regimes based on Western rules, and to temper its more unilateral instincts in the region. This year’s summit in Manila will focus on “building inclusive economies” in response to a public perception that APEC has lagged on this issue. The Filipino hosts also plan to proceed with a study on establishing a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific—a proposal the United States attempted to block at last year’s summit to maintain a focus on its favored Transpacific Partnership trade agreement that will (at least for some time) exclude China.

7. Twenty-First Conference of Parties (COP-21) to the UN Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)

The most important global summit of 2015 will be the last. From November 30 to December 11, all eyes will be on Paris. There, 190 parties to the UNFCCC will try to hammer out a legally binding, universal agreement on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets to replace the Kyoto Protocol, one that will stop temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius. They have their work cut out for them. At this month’s COP-20 in Lima, developing countries finally joined developed ones in agreeing to submit national plans to rein in GHGs (a major advance from Kyoto, which placed obligations only on the rich). Despite this breakthrough, the Lima meeting failed to create a robust mechanism for comparing levels of national effort, or to provide details on how new developing world initiatives will be financed.Meanwhile, the UN climate change secretariat warned that combined pledges are still likely to fall well short of what is required to prevent catastrophic temperature rise.

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