Real summit deals happen at dinner

G8 and G20 leaders will sit down for hours this weekend, discussing the world economy, maternal health, the Middle East and other pressing issues in lengthy meetings. But often the most important conversations happen outside the board rooms, during dinners, coffee runs, sessions at the gym, and even bathroom breaks.
G-8 leaders make their way to a group photo at the G8 Summit in Huntsville, Ont. on Friday, June 25, 2010. ((Peter Bregg/Host photo))

G8 and G20 leaders will sit down for hours in Toronto and Huntsville this weekend, discussing pressing issues during long formal meetings.

But often the most important conversations at these types of summits happen outside the board room, during dinners, coffee runs, sessions at the gym and even bathroom breaks.

"It's not what goes on at the summit table, it's what goes on behind the scenes," said Hugo Dobson, a senior lecturer from the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

Dobson, who has studied the G8, recalled a historic moment in 2002 when U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair bumped into each other at a hotel gym at 6 a.m. during the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Alta.

Former foreign affairs minister Bill Graham says important summit discussions happen outside the meeting room. ((Lianne Elliott/CBC))

Running side-by-side on treadmills, they launched into a discussion of foreign policy.

"They hammered out a lot of the agreement on what would happen with Iraq," Dobson said.

Such meetings on the treadmill are not unusual.

Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham had his own treadmill conversation about Iraq at the NATO summit in Prague in 2002.

"I was out working out in the gym in the morning and Jack Straw [ Britain's foreign secretary] came in," Graham recalled. "He's on the treadmill beside me, and we get talking about Iraq and what the Americans going to do in Iraq."

Graham said he's had important conversations while lunching with Commonwealth leaders while walking into dinners with heads of states, or even while taking post-meeting strolls, as he did in 2002 with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, during a summit in Whistler.

Graham even raised the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian imprisoned in Syria, while chatting casually in 2002 with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in the back of a room at the Prague NATO summit. 

Dinners are particularly important, Graham said, becausee you get the attention of whomever you sit next to for the duration of the meal.

"If you're sitting beside the president of the United States, you're going to have an hour and a half with him," he said. "It's a big opportunity to get your word in."

U.S. President George W. Bush, right, gestures toward journalists as British Prime Minister Tony Blair looks on in 2002 at the G8 meeting in Kananaskis, Alta. ((Susan Walsh/Associated Press))

While some may argue that summits are too costly to stage, with billions spent to bring leaders together, Graham said the face-to-face meetings and all the informal chances for conversation are invaluable.

Leaders get to know each other and feel they can call one another whenever an issue arises. The same goes for ministers and even staff members. This kind of interaction can't be achieved through a teleconference or over the internet, Graham said.

"If you want to have a general conversation about where the world is going, how we accommodate one another over very difficult differences, it takes time, it takes confidence building, it takes being relaxed," Graham said. 

"This is not going to be achieved over Skype [software that allows phone calls to be made over the internet]."

Leaders' summits, and the G8 in particular, are designed to foster these kinds of personal discussions, Dobson said. They aren't formal meetings, unlike a gathering of the United Nations or World Bank.

"They were always intended to be informal — a fireside chat with like-minded leaders getting together, not having a formal agenda, not having official minutes that they publish," he said.

"They are able essentially to get together and hammer out a consensus as the self-appointed leading governments of the day."

He said the setting can be so informal that one Japanese finance minister was able to carry on a discussion of economic policy with his U.S. counterpart in the bathroom. Dobson wouldn't divulge which Japanese minister told him the story.

"These summits are flexible and informal," Dobson said. "Things like the food, the dinners — all these peripheral activities — they have an important role to play. And that’s at the very heart at the nature of this kind of organization, or non-organization as it may be."