G8: Where do the powers stand?

| July 19, 2006
The G8 summit in Russia got off to a bad start for the host, President Vladimir Putin. Not only did the American President begin his stay in St. Petersburg by meeting with the anti-Putin opposition, George W. Bush failed to give U.S. approval for speedy Russian admission to membership in the World Trade Organization.

The official agenda got hijacked by the war in the Middle East. The tyranny of current events forced world leaders off their set piece interventions, and made them react, reflect and juggle domestic politics, and international diplomacy.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper jumped to support Israel, and landed in immediate controversy. His use of emphatic language to defend retaliatory bombing, left him without a fall back position when Israeli bombs killed Canadian children.

The summit ended with a declaration calling on Israel to cease military operations, and Hezbollah to stop shelling Israel. Now the UN reports 500,000 people being displaced in Lebanon.

Canada joined the G7 30 years ago, at the invitation of U.S. President Gerald Ford a year after its creation by French President Giscard d'Estaing. In 1994, Bill Clinton asked Russia to attend, and since 1998 it has been the G8.

For some, the G8 is sort of a concert of leading powers, looking to control world affairs, though increasingly it has become more of a public relations opportunity for politicians seeking re-election, and maybe a place in history. From the photo-op perspective Putin scored a triumph just by presiding over the event.

The idea behind the 1975 French project was to head off the looming economic war between Europe, the U.S. and Japan, and co-ordinate a response to the fourfold price hike in petroleum instituted by OPEC. The G7 was an economic summit; the presence of heads of state and government was to give it clout.

The G7 still exists to discuss international finance — Russia does not participate in those discussions though as host for the recent St. Petersburg G8, President Putin got to set the agenda. Energy security, education and infectious diseases were the three priorities.

The real business of the G8 summits is political: leaders probe for agreement, and try to define, and shape issues they have to face.

For Canada, the G8 is a major diplomatic stage denied to other middle powers. Canada's representative can lead discussions, represent the point of view of other middle powers, or the Third World, or even champion campaigns on issues such as AIDS; it is up to the Prime Minister of the day.

With a bravado best left to the Chamber of Commerce, in St. Petersburg Harper's initial contribution was to declare Canada to be an energy superpower.

It is a reflection of the sorry state of Conservative foreign policy that agreeing with the U.S. was the only course of action Stephen Harper could come up with when the G8 summit agenda shifted to the outbreak of war.

To describe the Harper pro-Israel tilt as a triumph of politics over policy would be mistaken. Policy is politics. Politics is not simply a currying of favour, as those who want to depreciate it would have it. Politics is about doing things, leading and working with others. Policy is about working out a course of action; in a representative democracy that means elected leaders play a leading role in what gets done.

The crisis in the Middle East did more than upset the planning for the G8 summit; it revealed the need for enlightened diplomacy by leading powers.

Russia is lined up behind Iran and Syria, which support Hezbollah. The U.S. supports Israel, and France has strong ties to Lebanon. If these countries cannot agree, there is little likelihood of a ceasefire, let alone a peace.

Our history suggests Canada should be working to foster agreement, not take sides in a war.

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