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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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If one looks at Canada's involvement in the summit broadly over time, a changing role is obvious, from non-member in 1975, to host in 1981, to member of the important Finance Ministers G7 in 1986 (and host again in 1988). Just as the summit and the subjects of discussion have changed over time, due to changes in the world economy, personalities of the leaders and domestic concerns, Canada's role and scope of participation has evolved, adapted and grown. But, despite this changing role in the summit as a whole, Canada's participation at the summit tables has displayed a remarkable degree of continuity. An examination of Canada's participation at the twelve past summits yields a number of consistent themes. Regardless of the major economic issues facing the leaders as a group, Canada has repeatedly brought her own distinct set of issues to the table and taken a special interest in several questions, notably freer multilateral trade (including agricultural subsidies, North-South relations, energy issues (until 1981), and political topics such as South Africa, the environment, East-West relations and terrorism. Moreover, it has also consistently advanced the interests of the world's disadvantaged drawing upon Canada's associations in the Commonwealth, la francophonie, Cairns Group and others. Finally, in areas where Canada does not have a lot of power, such as reform of the monetary system or the level of the U.S. interest rates, it tends to act in concert with other members of the summit seven.

Canada has not brought all of the above issues up at every summit, but as my analysis of each summit will show, these issues have made up the core of Canada's involvement over the twelve summits that we have attended. Our role at each particular summit is determined by immediate factors, but the underlying themes listed above give Canada's involvement in the Seven Power Summit a definite continuity.

Although membership in the summit seven has not significantly altered the basic content and guiding principles of Canada's foreign policy, it has changed the method in which Canada carries out its foreign policy and its status in the world community. It now actively participates in setting goals and priorities in international economic and political affairs through the summit, but maintains its position as a responsible power pressing the needs of the world's disadvantaged, as well as its own interests, onto the world agenda. It does not always succeed in making its issues and concerns the central topics of discussion at the summits, but it is persistent enough that some slow progress has been made on issues such as developing countries' debt and agricultural trade.

As one of the smaller powers of the seven Canada also has a greater stake than most members in the continuation and expansion of the summit process itself. This desire to maintain constructive dialogue has led to continuity in two other areas: Canada's role as a mediator and its attempts to expand the agenda to include a broader range of political issues. There have been a number of summits when a difference of opinion between some leaders has threatened to bring the whole process to standstill. As it is very much in Canada's interest to keep this institution alive and thriving, Canadian leaders have often stepped in to mediate In disputes, most often between the U.S. and Europe. To the same end, Canada's emphasis on political issues has been a way of trying to maintain unity, as it is usually easier to achieve a consensus on political topics, especially in the present age of the "conservative consensus".

Canada's membership in the summit is an increasingly important part of its foreign policy, both in terms of status, association, and participation. Its activity at the summits has shown some consistent themes and a general trend toward more of an "issue-maker" role rather than just a passive member.

Source: Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

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