Sherpas: The senior diplomats who lay the summit groundwork

The success of a summit is largely the work of an unelected group of senior officials who have spent many months preparing for those few days of talks. Collectively, they are officially known as the Sherpas.

The photo-ops marking the end of this June's G8 and G20 summits will inevitably focus on the leaders whose names are attached to the final communiqués.

But much of the content of those statements — indeed the success of the summits themselves — is largely the work of an unelected group of senior officials who have spent many months preparing for those few days of talks that are followed so closely around the world.

Collectively, they are officially known as the Sherpas — an elite group of bureaucrats who, like the Himalayan mountain guides they're named after, do much of the heavy lifting for the leaders in the spotlight.

Sherpas are the personal representatives of each leader — career diplomats or senior government officials appointed by each leader to represent their country's interests and carry out the extensive series of pre-summit consultations needed before all such high-profile meetings.

There's only one Sherpa per G8 or G20 member. Canada's current Sherpa (since 2008) is Len Edwards, the deputy minister of foreign affairs. Former ambassadors Robert Fowler and Derek Burney have also been Sherpas.

Flying under the radar is part of the job description. Their faces are largely unknown to the public at large. They meet behind closed doors and issue no press releases. They travel constantly, working long hours under intense deadlines. And the meetings begin long before the summits do.

Agenda shaping

It is during these "talks before the talks" where the Sherpas' most important work takes place — helping to shape the summit agenda.

As host, Canada has a lot of wiggle room to advance its own summit priorities. That's something Prime Minister Stephen Harper took advantage of in March when he took the unusual step of attending one of the preparatory Sherpa gatherings in Ottawa to press his case for one of his government's G20 summit priorities — finding broad agreement for continued stimulus spending while looking ahead to the time when the taps will be turned off.

Foreign policy experts point out that Canada has often been able to punch above its weight class on the international stage, and the G8 and G20 are no exceptions.

"Canada plays a role that's more important than its power would suggest," says Ivan Savic, senior researcher at the G8/G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto. 

"What Canada has always been good at is diplomacy and creating coalitions," notes Savic. "Canadian Sherpas have been able to do that in the G8 and G20 context."

Diplomatic skirmishes

Building that kind of broad support is key if a summit is to succeed. Consensus-building is critical precisely because the G8 and G20 are informal groups. They cannot force other members to adopt any policy. No one has a veto. And since no leader relishes the optics of being part of a failed summit, the search begins early for solutions that allow all leaders to point to concrete steps and declare success.

This is where the Sherpas' diplomatic skills are really called into play. The behind-the-scenes fighting in the run-up to summits can be quite intense, Savic says. "Some issues can be very contentious." When policy differences can't be overcome, the goal is to come up with policies that at least don't interfere with those of other nations.

And while a certain amount of schmoozing and persuasion can be accomplished by conference call and email is frequent, nothing beats face time. "It's much easier to get a sense of where people are by meeting face to face," says Savic.

A look at Len Edwards's recent travel itinerary shows evidence he often goes face-to-face. In the last six months, he has been to Japan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, China, India, Uruguay, Mexico and South Africa as part of his "summit outreach."

He also hosted his G8 Sherpa colleagues in Yellowknife this past winter — the first of three scheduled meetings before the main event in June — and is also holding a series of cross-Canada meetings with dozens of civil society groups, academics and business leaders.

"My role on this team is to support the government of Canada's goals for this year's summit," Edwards wrote in his G8 summit blog in February. "This means that the agenda for global security will be up front in all discussions and we will be working hard to show Canada's leadership in finding solutions to tough issues."   

Sherpa support 

While Edwards may be Canada's only Sherpa, he doesn't have to do all of the heavy lifting.

He is helped by several "sous-Sherpas" who provide input on a variety of issues. Chief among them is Tiff Macklem, an associate deputy finance minister and (as of July 1) the senior deputy governor of the Bank of Canada. Macklem is leading Canada's international efforts to reform financial regulations and prevent a repeat of the financial meltdown.  

And while Edwards is Canada's point man for other Sherpas, finance ministers, foreign ministers and the leaders themselves have always played major roles as international lobbyists. One has only to witness the Harper government's recent full-court press to derail the global bank tax movement to see how broadly the fight can be waged.

In the G20 context, Sherpas also get considerable support and advice from two working groups and four experts groups set up specifically as part of the current summit process. For instance, Canada and India are co-chairing the 2010 working group targeting a "framework for strong, sustainable and balanced growth."

Lofty goals aside, it's useful to remember that these summits are at their heart very political events — something that can get reflected in the final statements.

"As in the G8, G20 leaders seek and sometimes secure specific favourable references to themselves or their countries in the summit communiqués in hopes that their voters and others will notice them, and give them an electoral or other domestic political reward," notes John Kirton, director of the G8/G20 Research Group.

So when the G8 and G20 leaders issue their final statements in June, don't expect to see the names of Len Edwards or any of his other Sherpa colleagues.

Their fingerprints, however, will be much in evidence.