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George Cook

Canada is a superpower. This surprises us. We are used to thinking of ourselves as intelligent amateurs quietly observing the world championship chess match. We follow the moves, appreciate the strategy, cheer the winner, console the loser, and return home satisfied that while we are not contenders, we are at least astute commentators, with something to tell our grandchildren.

Today, the reality of our status belies our self-image. Without ado, we have inched our way to the table and have sat down to play. A measure of our economic influence is our membership in the so-called G-7, the group of the seven largest industrial democracies, and our participation in its annual leaders' meeting.

For three days beginning June 19, Canada will host this year's gathering. The prime ministers or presidents of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States will meet in Toronto, attended by an estimated 5,000 journalists. The leaders are expected to discuss a wide range of economic and political issues, from agricultural subsidies to apartheid in South Africa.

Most of the meetings will take place at the Convention Centre, but the leaders will spend half a day in the more relaxed and attractive surroundings of Hart House. It was chosen over dozens of other possible locations in and around Toronto.

Some cities host the Olympic Games or international expositions to announce their arrival in the great world. Toronto, ever the gritty pragmatist, is hosting a political and economic summit. For three days city vistas will illuminate millions of television screens. For a day, the University of Toronto will be the centre-piece. The impact will be instantaneous and immense. Whenever Japanese businessmen, French dock workers, American school teachers, British miners or Italian lawyers ask themselves the name of Canada's leading city and university, one name will come instantly to mind: Toronto.

But the University will provide more than just a half-day back-drop for cameras. An enterprising group of scholars, led by Professors Bill Graham of law and John Kirton of political science, co-directors of the Centre for International Studies, have assembled 25 experts to monitor the summit activities of each nation's leader, staff and press corps hour by hour, day by day. For example, an expert on Japan will stick with the Japanese delegation and press corps to get an intimate sense, in Japanese, of just what they wish to achieve, and how they perceive the event. "We intend to know more about what went on at the summit than anybody else there," says Kirton.

Every morning, the group will meet to discuss the previous day and the day to come. In this way, they will assemble a clearer view of developments than all but a few large newspapers. "I don't think The New York Times is going to need us, but there are a lot of media organizations from the U.S. who have never covered the summit before."

Kirton has dubbed this the "American Airlines supersaver summit" because U.S. news organizations will take advantage of the low cost of travel to Toronto to send even more reporters and camera crews than usual. The neophytes know little about the dynamics of summitry or the complex economic and political issues on the agenda. Without an independent source of intelligence, they will be forced to rely solely on the leaders' press secretaries, whose tendency to puff up the boss (every nation claims credit for every development, however negligible) reduces their credibility.

Kirton believes it is important to make this kind of contribution to public understanding, especially at a time when the University and the Centre for International Studies are trying to win private sector support. "You can't raise money unless you show the outside world you can help." Where the summit is concerned, help means providing information and analysis for journalists and, through them, the people of the seven nations involved. It is a teaching role. In the months following the Toronto summit, the centre will carry out in-depth analysis and research of international relations in general and summitry in particular.

Economic and political issues are the hard core of the summit process. The leaders come together not to exchange pleasantries, but to try to create conditions for stable economic growth and political understanding. But substantive achievements occur behind closed doors. The people of the world see the results only through newspaper, radio and television reports. In this context, the activities of journalists can be seen to exert excessive influence. Some have suggested that the presence of so many journalists has undermined the ability of the leaders to make real decisions. Confidentiality is virtually impossible. If a particular prime minister or president were inclined to make a concession in one area to achieve a breakthrough in another, and the national press corps got wind of it, the result could be caution and failure.

"That's a good argument," says Kirton, "and it might be right. But I don't think so." On the contrary, summitry wouldn't work without the media. Reporting to the home audience ensures the effectiveness of the decisions taken. "When the private, informal discussions generate those spontaneous combustion breakthroughs on the otherwise untouchable issues of the day, when the leaders bite the bullet and put it in the communiqué, the media make sure that it's really going to change what happens in the real world." The presence of thousands of reporters guarantees the accountability of the leaders to their allies as well as their constituents.

After 1945, when Europe and much of Asia smouldered in the aftermath of war, Canada was powerful. Only Canada and the United States had escaped massive destruction of their territory. We acquired our new status by default: the rest of the world had been destroyed. But while we were willing to take advantage, Britain, France and the U.S. were not prepared to admit us to the club on the strength of a war economy. Canada would have to wait. Not without demur, we accepted the verdict, but we did not forget the promise. As Europe and Japan rebuilt, as the United States moved swiftly to consolidate its position as the most powerful nation in the world, we nurtured our economy. It grew. Quietly, we moved into the front rank of industrial powers, first in natural resources and then in manufactured goods. We became one of the world's great exporters. Today, Canada is home to more large companies than Italy and almost as many as France. Since 1975 we have been a net exporter of capital: we lend or invest more abroad than others invest here.

The first summit, at Rambouillet, France, in 1975, was a response to an economic crisis caused by the rise in world oil prices and the collapse of the international system of fixed currency exchange rates. Canada was not invited. We protested and, with the support of the U.S. and Japan, our most important trading partners on the Pacific rim, we were included in the 1976 Puerto Rico summit. Subsequent meetings, moving from country to country, have dealt with the big economic issues -¾ currency levels, trade protectionism, Third World debt, inflation and unemployment, energy prices -¾ in an attempt to foster balanced economic growth. They have also broached political issues --apartheid in South Africa, refugees in southeast Asia, famine in northern Africa, relations between the industrial democracies and the Soviet Union and between the rich and poor countries.

The summits set the agenda for the world's major economic institutions -¾ the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The meetings establish the policies that the economic institutions implement. Prior to 1975, their course was charted mainly in Washington; since then they have been guided increasingly by the counsels of the summit seven. Allan Gotlieb, Canada's ambassador to the U.S. and a former undersecretary of state for external affairs, has referred to the group as a "directorate".

Canada is a unique voice at the summit table. We share many of the concerns of our industrial partners, but have many of our own. We have brought these forcefully to the attention of the other participants. We have also taken it upon ourselves to defend the interests of the middle powers and the less developed countries. At the Venice summit in 1980, then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau succeeded in placing "north-south" concerns on the political agenda. We have pressed for more money for international financial institutions and for relief for sub-Saharan Africa. At the most recent Tokyo meeting, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made agricultural trade a top item. And in Venice last summer, Canada brought pressure to bear on both the U.S. and the U.K. to take effective measures against apartheid in South Africa.

G-7 membership has given Canada political and economic influence commensurate with the importance of its economy. It has allowed us to bring the concerns of small countries and the developing world to the table. But it has also constrained us in some ways. After the 1978 Bonn summit, Canada changed its fiscal policy, at the request of the other members of the group, to reduce government spending. At the Tokyo summit of 1979, we agreed to change our two-tiered oil-pricing policy (one price for domestically produced oil, one for imported crude) to bring it in line with the practice elsewhere.

Of course, the potential importance of the seven-power summit is not always matched by its performance. While the summit process as a whole has led to a restabilization of the world economy after the oil and currency shocks of the early 1970s, individual summits have not always produced spectacular results. The third world debt crisis continues to loom, and protectionist pressures to mount. But the summits remain the only way to solve particular problems.

Trade in agricultural products is a case in point. No leader, acting alone, could eliminate agricultural subsidies and liberalize trade around the world. In fact, politicians can easily be tempted to introduce protectionist measures to satisfy the demands of their home constituencies. But that can lead to retaliation, trade wars, attrition, bankruptcy, war ... international co-operation is the only exit. "The summit can get the leaders to realize that protection is a mug's game," says Kirton. "Once they've prevented it, once they've built confidence that everyone is going to play ball and make the tough decisions, it's much easier to move and take a real step towards liberalization." Neither Reagan, Thatcher, Mitterrand nor Mulroney can unilaterally eliminate agricultural subsidies. That can only be done together, and the decision can only be taken at the highest political level.

Will the Toronto summit be remembered as one of the more successful? Both the U.S. and Canada face national elections shortly. State elections are coming in Germany and Italy is always in flux. The electoral prospects of leaders may cause paralysis, but may also lead to breakthroughs. President Ronald Reagan is approaching the end of his term of office, and may want to coast. If so, the summit will be reduced to an empty show. And there are other dangers. "If you have a lame-duck president, that's a recipe for the boys below him to shoot at one another," Kirton says. "It means an incoherent U.S. stance that makes it very difficult for the rest of us. Unless the Americans get their act together, it could be a do-nothing summit."

On the other hand, this will be one of Ronald Reagan's last opportunities to make a major impact. He may want to march into the history books in high style. And he may want to promote a continuation of his own conservative ethos by helping Vice-President George Bush win the presidency in November. South Africa could be the key. In Venice, the other leaders pressed Reagan and Thatcher to toughen their opposition to apartheid. Tempted, Reagan wavered, but Thatcher reminded him that he owed her a favour for allowing U.S. aircraft to take off from British bases in the bombing raid on Libya. Reagan vetoed stiffer economic sanctions. This time, Thatcher's position is weaker; Reagan is not in her debt. And this is an election year in the U.S. "If Reagan cares enough about Bush and Bush is scared enough about the Jesse Jackson phenomenon; if Bush has to win in the south and has to get just enough black votes to do it; we might see American movement on South Africa," Kirton says. "There could be big blue sky there."

The summit seven are a relatively stable alliance, but competing national interests are not always easy to reconcile, especially in the area of trade. For Kirton and others, one of the most fascinating aspects of summitry is what he calls "coalition and cleavage patterns." Who's siding with whom over what. At one time, such a meeting would have had two real players, the U.S. and everyone else. But the Americans have lost their preeminence. Now they must rely on the support of their allies if they wish their policy proposals to prevail. In the 1980s, Pierre Trudeau and François Mitterrand were often ranged against Reagan and Thatcher. The Japanese, Germans and Italians determined the outcome. And on some issues, the European powers find themselves in opposition to the Pacific powers, Canada, Japan and the U.S.

All things considered, Kirton is optimistic that the Toronto summit will result in some important decisions, that it will be more than just a publicity stunt. Summitry is a gamble; a great deal depends on the personalities of the leaders, the coalitions that arise, domestic politics and American willingness to achieve movement on important economic and political issues. But then all such meetings are like chess games. No one knows the outcome until the final move is made.

Appeared originally in University of Toronto Alumni Magazine 15, No. 4 (Summer 1988). Reproduced by permission.

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