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Canadian Foreign Policy and the Seven Power Summits

Timothy Heeney

Country Study Number One
Centre for International Studies
University of Toronto
May 1988

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Throughout this century Canada has had to fight, or at least work very hard, to get a seat at international tables and the opportunity to participate in the building and management of world order. It was a struggle because of Canada's lingering attachment to the British Empire and its limited capabilities in an age when military strength was the undisputed base of power. However, the story of Canada's ascension into the summit seven is not one of struggle. It happened rather easily, as a result of the changing nature of world power from a military/political base to an economic one. Reluctant as many Canadians are to admit it, Canada is a major economic power. Its GNP and volume of trade is close to or higher than those of Italy and the United Kingdom. It is a natural resource superpower. In addition, by 1985, 70% of its exports consisted of manufactured goods. And it is home to a good number of the world's largest companies. (2 ) The reluctance of the Canadian people to acknowledge their powerful economic capabilities and position may be driven by the fact that with this power and a seat at the summit comes responsibility. This responsibility was difficult to assume initially because Canadians have a definite view of how their country should be managed which was different from the smaller role for governments that was a theme of the earlier summits.(3) According to Alan Gotlieb, Canada's more interventionist tradition at home is a product of its self-perception as a weaker, or in the broadest sense, a developing nation. (4 ) Despite this initial hesitation, the responsibility of full summit membership was accepted relatively quickly, as can be seen in decisions taken by Prime Ministers Trudeau and Joe Clark after the summits of 1978 and 1979 about fiscal policy and energy prices respectively.(5) Actions such as the creation of institutions like FIRA, which go against the grain of other summit participants, have not seemed to harm Canada's position at the summit, although they may be an indication that Canada's self-perception as a country needing extra protection still lingers on.

Although it is true that it is a major economic power, Canada is still greatly affected by the economic policies of other larger nations, particularly the United States - by far its largest trading partner. As one of the smaller countries in the summit seven Canada feels the impact of decisions taken by other members to a much greater extent than most. Consequently it has a much greater stake in the summit itself, in an age where international economic decision-making has steadily eroded the primacy of national policy formulation. This is not a universal view of the role of the summit in Canadian foreign policy, however. In fact, in most of the general literature about the Seven Power Summit Canada s membership is barely mentioned. Robert Putnam, a foremost summit scholar , has written:

This view is shared to some extent by a significant component of Canadian society. Over the years the media, particularly the Financial Post and the Globe and Mail, in addition to some prominent Canadian figures have repeatedly expressed their skepticism about the value of the summit itself and therefore Canada's role as a member. (7 ) One former Canadian participant claimed in an interview that the summits had only had very limited success and , although admitting that it's more useful to be there than not , he wondered why we bothered going to the summits anyway.

Thus two opposing views on the role of the Seven Power Summit in Canadian foreign policy have emerged over the years. One group claims that the summit is not an effective body for the management of the global economy therefore Canada is wasting its time and effort on it. They claim that Canada has no influence over the big-ticket issues anyway and that the prime reason for the summit's continuing existence is for domestic just being there reasons. On the other hand there is a group of people, mostly academics or people who have been involved in the summit, particularly Alan Gotlieb, John Kirton, and Sylvia Ostry, who claim that Canada's membership in the Seven Power Summit is a crucial part of its foreign policy and indeed a major step in its growth as a nation. Alan Gotlieb has said: Future historians will call Canada's accession to this institution a foreign policy turning point for Canada. (8) This group believes that the advent of the Seven Power Summit has confirmed a new type of international system, one in which Canada has a significant role to play. Both views are based on fundamentally different perceptions about the usefulness of the whole summit process itself.

Canada's role in the summit has, in fact, displayed aspects of both of these visions. Modesty is appropriate if only because the summits have not had a flawless record of success as an international institution. But, as Lord Robert Armstrong stated, the holding of economic summits helps to make the development of the world macro-economy better managed and more positive than it would be if summits did not occur. (9 ) The summit has been important for Canada's visible status in the world and has provided an effective link to Japan, the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy, countries with which Canada did not already have a special relationship . Therefore one must not underestimate the sheer importance of being there as being a big step for Canada in its growth as a modern nation-state. Canada s membership in the summit seven has thus become an important part of its foreign policy as a whole.

Certainly by 1988, Canada's membership in the summit seven, the G7, la francophonie, the Commonwealth, the Cairns Group and other multilateral fora has made it one of, if not the, most well-connected nation-states in the present world community. The summit also reinforces Canada's popular European identity, a link which has been described as one of our distinctive national values in our foreign policy.(10) Whether one calls it the new internationalism or tries to identify it with the golden age of liberal internationalism (as Mulroney's rhetoric so often does), Canada's participation in the Seven Power Summit and other concerts suggests that Canada is truly a principal, foremost, or major power in the world.

Source: Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

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