“You did a superb job on the summit meeting in London,” wrote President Jimmy Carter to Henry Owen, a White House aide, following a gathering of the seven leading industrialised nations in the UK in 1977. “Your tremendous talents really paid off. Thank you for letting me take credit for your good work.”
That typically self-effacing comment from Mr Carter expresses exactly the peculiarly discreet and yet influential role of the “sherpa”, those senior officials who do the essential preparatory work ahead of G7 summits.
In recent years, the profile of the sherpa process has risen somewhat, in particular as the G7 has focused on issues of international development making it a target for the professional lobbying of non-governmental organisations. But sherpas continue to try to resolve as much of the contentious matter of the summit ahead of time without too much fuss.
The origin of the term, and the role, stretches back to the mid-1970s. French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, wearying of the formality and bureaucracy of most international meetings, convened an informal fireside chat of six like-minded governments — his own, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US. Canada joined the next year to complete the G7. The gathering had no formal powers. But this could work as an advantage as it meant that the decision-making apparatus could be relatively nimble, with a single high-level official from each country preparing the summit by negotiating on behalf of his or her head of government.
The metaphor of a sherpa in this context is well-chosen. Just as the sherpas of the Himalayas, familiar with the technically difficult terrain, help to guide the more famous mountaineers on their summit ascents, so their G7 counterparts carry the discussions somewhere near to the top of the mountain so their heads of government can then plant the flag on the peak.
The mechanics of the process are fairly simple: ahead of a summit, the sherpas have a series of meetings, some in person and some by phone, and try to reach agreement on what the summit will conclude. Special attention is given to the host of the summit, who will often have some particular issue to push.
But actually making the process work is far from routine. “Of all international policymaking, the sherpa process is the one where personal relationships are absolutely key,” says Dan Price, who was sherpa to both the G8 — before Russia was expelled in 2014 and it reverted to the G7 — and the G20 for President George W Bush.
Yoshiji Nogami, Japan’s G8 sherpa for several years which included Japan hosting the summit at Okinawa in 2000, says that meetings of sherpas are generally held outside the capital city, in a setting where the participants can bond. “You stay together,” says Mr Nogami, now president of the Japan Institute of International Affairs. “There’s a real sense of solidarity among the sherpas.”
Transferring the sherpa process to the G20, when the larger grouping was elevated to head-of-government level during the global financial crisis in 2008, proved challenging.
Another former G20 sherpa says that, while the G7 still largely reflects the original ideal of an intimate conversation, G20 meetings “are more like [London’s busy] Waterloo Station” given the profusion of aides and representatives of other institutions.
As for the effectiveness of individuals, Mr Price explains that “those sherpas who obviously speak with authority for their bosses and can negotiate on their behalf are much more effective than those who cannot”.
The sherpa process is not just a group of isolated officials who between them cook up a statement that their leaders can rubber-stamp at the summit. It is a continual process of back-and-forth negotiation involving each leader and all the relevant ministries in each government. Finance and foreign ministries appoint their own “sous-sherpas” to make sure their voices are heard in the process.
As G7/G8 events became the focus of non-governmental organisation campaigns on debt relief and overseas aid during the 1990s and 2000s, the sherpa process found itself in the spotlight. Bernd Pfaffenbach, the German sherpa to the G8 summit in Germany in 2007, engaged with NGOs to the point where he found himself playing guitar on stage alongside Bob Geldof, the rock star who campaigns with the organisation One, which combats poverty and disease.
Jamie Drummond, executive director of One, says: “Sherpas are the shorthand for the policy position taken by each country.” Because they are the locus of the debates that determine the outcome of each summit, he says, being able to lobby sherpas directly is invaluable. Indeed, Mr Drummond says the credibility of those lobbying the G7 can be judged by their knowledge of how the system works. “If you don’t understand the sherpa process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Alan Beattie is FT leader writer and Gaku Shimada is a Nikkei staff writer