Forget the G8, Canada should have bigger fish to fry

Jeremy Kinsman on how Canada has lost its way abroad.

The G8 summit of world leaders in Italy this week is a throwback to an era that has faded from the scene.

The group of eight industrial powers is basically defunct, its claim to exclusive financial competence having lost all credibility, particularly in the wake of the recent economic collapse and the finger-pointing that has taken place among some of its key members.

But apart from that, how can decisions on the world economy be taken without China and India? Sure, they are invited to the G8 as special guests, ushered in to an extra session or two.

This year's G8 host: embattled Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. (Gregoria Borgia/Associated Press)

But how long do we believe they will put up with that deluded insult to their status?

The transition from the clubby G8 to the larger G20 group of decision makers, a collection that includes economies as far-flung as Mexico, South Korea and Turkey, seems a case study in how to correct the situation.

But our own government doesn't seem to see it that way, which puts it at risk of running with the dinosaurs.

A unique moment

We are living today in a unique moment for changing the way the world governs itself, especially when it comes to developing a wider participation in the process.

No less a strategic thinker than Henry Kissinger has described 2009 as the year when a new world order began. But as he warned his own president: "The U.S. will have to learn that world order depends on a structure that participants support because they helped to bring it about."

That really is language keyed to Canada's multilateralist wiring. From Lester Pearson through Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, who virtually invented the G20, the many-handed, multilateral approach has been Canada's calling card.

Today, the G20 is the key focal point and global steering committee for many transnational and global issues at a time when the UN is trapped somewhere between deadlock and dysfunction.

The UN needs to be nursed back to health to work on peace and security issues. But for economic issues, though there have been proposals for a UN-based economic security council, it is a wholly unmanageable forum.

Not ideal, but

As a global institution, the G20 is not ideal. It lacks the clubby, lingua franca atmosphere of the G8. Plus, its membership has anomalies and will need regular updating. And, it needs a way to gather more regional inputs, especially from the poorer countries.

But the group of 20 economies, which together count for over 80 per cent of world trade and global GNP, is obviously vastly more representative and, hence, more legitimate and more purposeful than the small group of eight that will be meeting in Italy this week.

An increasingly cloistered gathering: the G8 leaders as they were two years ago, in June 2007 at the Grand Hotel at historic Heiligendamm, Germany. Five of the eight pictured here are now gone. (Misha Japaridze/Associated Press)

It will have to be broken in, of course, as it widens its coverage of issues. 

But in this, Canada should be well placed to help.

Yet, in defiance of clear evidence, Canada appears to be clinging to the G8.

Is it because we are set to host next year's gathering at a secluded Ontario resort in Muskoka?

Or because officials are thrilled to be part of such a small, elite group, even if any rational measurement of qualification would today exclude us?

These should be immaterial. In fact, for our own strategic interests, Canada's usual internationalist role should thrive in the larger forum.


As Trudeau said, "Canada has a global foreign policy because we have important relationships in all parts of the world." He certainly did — with Tanzania's Julius Nyerere, India's Indira Gandhi, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, Cuba's Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter, Jamaica's Michael Manley, France's Francois Mitterrand and Germany's Helmut Schmidt.

Mulroney's international range has never been adequately credited. If it were, it would include the big three — Ronald Reagan, George H. Bush and Britain's Margaret Thatcher, to be sure — as well as a host of Africans, Senegal's Abdou Diouf and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (when he was still on a democratic track); and Russia's Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Germany's Helmut Kohl  and the European Commission's Jacques Delors.

Chrétien — same — China's Jiang Zemin, Yeltsin, France's Jacques Chirac, Italy's Romano Prodi, and Brazil's Fernando Cardoso.

I think of Joe Clark's close connections to developments in South Africa, particularly his work to support Thabo Mbeki.

I travelled with Clark, when he was Mulroney's foreign minister, in the Middle East before and after the first Gulf War in 1990 and '91.

Before was to explore if there were ways to get Iraq out of Kuwait without war; after, was to try find ways to turn the war and the unusual international consensus of the moment into some sort of resolution on the Middle East.

We visited Moscow, Prague and Turkey, as well as several Arab countries, the UN and Washington beforehand.

Everywhere, everyone took Canadian credentials seriously. We had a record of objectivity and of policy capacity. The U.S. saw the merit in such a Canadian track.

Joe Clark has spoken of this work as "bridging," especially in our role as "the other North America."

Stephen Harper, with former U.S. president George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao at the July 2008, G8 summit in Hokkaida, Japan. The G8 is supposed to be the gathering to forge close working relationships. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

We didn't simply do America's bidding.

But our efforts enabled us to win Washington's appreciation for our specific assets of influence, built over time, which made Canada a player internationally.

That capacity has run down from lack of use.

'Unfavourite things'

Today in Ottawa, no one is trying. There are virtually no relationships of consequence. And the current government seems to scorn "how it was."

"Unfavourite things," to use the vogue phrase, have included human security, climate change, Africa, China, Russia, the UN, disarmament, the G20 and cultural relations.

Ottawa's current anti-intellectualism scorns Canadian culture whose showcasing abroad is essential to project Canada as a creative and innovative force.

Foreign policy today is narrow, defensive and occasionally aggressive for short-term political purposes. I'm thinking of issues such as the seal hunt, blustering over Arctic sovereignty and, until very recently, relations with China. 

It has also been derisive about our internationalist past and record, an attitude that is not serving us well.

Many have commented on the damage to Canada's reputation, including even Stephen Harper former foreign minister David Emerson, who reports being frequently asked abroad, "What's happened to Canada?"

Rule makers

This same loss of influence happened to Australia when former PM John Howard took them on a similar path and lined up with George W. Bush come hell or high water.

His successor, Kevin Rudd, spoke the other day about Australia's middle-power resurgence: "The influence (of middle powers) relies on the power of their ideals and the effectiveness of their influence-building," he said.

Under Rudd, Australia has reversed course and is a key initiator today in Southeast Asia on climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and global trade, a role that we ceded because we had less and less to say.

Or, think of Norway.

Internationally, there are rule makers and rule takers. We used to be helpfully prominent as a maker.

Canada was good at helping to negotiate outcomes where trade-offs were involved like, for example, the world's need to coax reductions in carbon emissions from fast-growing developing countries such as China or India in exchange for, say, the removal of the developed world's domestic agricultural subsidies.

Are we credible today on either front?

Canada is not a small-minded country comfortably watching from the edge of a crisis-driven world. Afghanistan can't be our only foreign activity of consequence.

Is it adequate today just to boast that we're doing fine, thank you, and leave it at that? (Especially since it's not true.)

Looking ahead, we can do better as a country. Three years have been burned. But there is still a fund of good will for Canada abroad and respect for our capacities to be helpful. We just have to find the appropriate — larger — forums to make our way in.