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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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The summit was conceived, not as a substitute for existing organizations, but as a forum for increasing consultation, cooperation and coordination among the leading industrialized democracies. The summits are of great consultative value because the discussions take place at the highest level. This allows the leaders to present integrated national policies as they speak for their government as a whole. This unique advantage is always available at the summit but the degree of cooperation has fluctuated from year to year for a number of reasons. The personalities and backgrounds of the leaders play a large part. If there is personal animosity between two particularly important leaders, the effectiveness of the summit In terms of cooperation will be severely hampered.

Two quite distinct "generations" of the summit have emerged, as the immediate result of the backgrounds and beliefs of the leaders themselves. The first generation (until roughly 1982) was made up primarily of ex-finance ministers whereas the second generation consisted of leaders with relatively little background in economic policy formulation. There was a definite difference in ideology of the two generations too, with the members of the first round being dominated by interventionists and the second by neo-conservatives. As Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau became elder summit statesman in the 1980s, he found his more interventionist policies not well received by the growing conservative laissez-faire attitudes of the other "new" leaders.(16)

The amount of time scent on discussion of political issues at what was initially intended to be primarily an economic summit is a constant source of controversy among summit participants and media commentators. It is inevitable that political and security issues will arise for two reasons: the heads of government attending the summits are above all elected politicians who cannot resist discussing political issues. Moreover, just as economies are interdependent, security is indivisible. (17) The actual amount of time spent on political issues varies widely from summit to summit, depending on a number of factors, but has shown a steady increase in the second generation of summits when few or none of the heads of government have been former finance ministers. The Canadian government has generally welcomed the growing political agenda, partly for consensus-building reasons which will be explained below, and partly because it fears a return to Guadeloupe-type meetings or Trilateral (USA, Europe, and Japan) meetings on political and security matters to which we would not be invited.

Despite the growing distraction of political topics, the summit does force all leaders to focus at least some of their attention on international economic problems every year. It also serves as a method of education for the leaders and their publics as well as acting as a confidence-building mechanism.(18)

As with every other international institution, the summit is not without it critics and problems. The most frequently cited problem centers around 'he size and circus-like atmosphere of the summit. The original intention of the summit was to maintain informal, freewheeling discussion similar to that of the so-called "Library Group" of finance ministers which existed before 1975. Although attempts have been made to regain this sort of meeting, with notable success at the Ottawa Summit In 1981, the summits have become more formal and have attracted an enormous quantity of journalists from around the world. This is somewhat inevitable due to the nature of the people at the summit, but is a drawback nonetheless. Others complain that the summits never actually achieve anything, a criticism which ignores the fact that concrete decisions are not the primary goal of the summit. Another popular criticism is that the focus of attention has become increasingly on political topics which do not need the same sort of attention as economic issues. Yet despite these problems, the summit has proven by its duration and more than occasional success that it is an institution worth being a part of.

Source: Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto

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