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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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There were both underlying and immediate factors which led to the first meeting of the most powerful leaders of the democratic world in Rambouillet, France in November 1975. The three principal and interrelated structural origins of summitry In the 1970s were the entanglement of foreign and domestic policies due to economic interdependence, the decline of the USA as the clear hegemon, and the bureaucratization of international relations which had frustrated leaders and created the need for a forum to consider the 'big picture'.(11) As the memory of world war had become more distant due to the enduring stability of nuclear deterrence, the economic side of foreign policy had become increasingly important to the point where some argued that "economic strength now overshadows military might as the international currency of influence. (12) This changing nature of international power combined with the relative decline in the economic strength of the USA in the 1970s led to a democratic industrial world in need of the leadership and direction which came to be provided by the summit.

Another underlying origin of the summit, as well as an increase in summitry in other forums such as the EEC and NATO, was the growing need to give some overall integrated direction to increasingly complex problems that were being dealt with on an individual and separate basis. Heads of governments are the only people who can create balanced decisions, compromising within and between economic and political concerns, to provide leadership to the interdependent democratic world. They can encourage action to break through bureaucratic inertia which can often paralyze other international institutions which deal with complex but particular economic problems.

The summit is thus not a substitute for institutions such as the GATT, IMF or World Bank. It is, rather, a forum which provides the political will to make these functional bodies more effective and to give them a longer-term strategy. This is very important for Canadians who have a long record of support for the institutions of the post-war UN system but who have also come to realize that they "were not sufficient to cope with the consequences of accelerating interdependence and unpredictable change. (13)

The UN system, moreover, did not give a significant role to the defeated powers of the Second World War. Yet, Germany, Japan and Italy have since become major economic, and therefore political, powers in the international system. The summit provided an effective way to integrate these powers, especially the Federal Republic of Germany (FRO) and Japan, back into positions of leadership in the western world. The summit forum was thus of particular value to Canada, whose bilateral relationships with Germany, Japan and Italy lagged far behind the very intense and special relationships Canada maintained with its wartime allies - France, the United Kingdom and, above all, the United States. The summit has also proven to be a forum for Canada to broaden its international association away from the centrality of Canada-U.S. relations.

There were also immediate factors which led to the Rambouillet summit In 1975. The Bretton Woods monetary system had essentially broken down when the USA suspended the dollar's convertibility into gold in 1971 and thereby ended the era of fixed exchange rates. The volatility of the International monetary system was exacerbated by the first oil price shock of 1973 which led the world economy into a state of complete turmoil by mid-1974. On top of all this, at a Special Session of the United Nations in 1974 there was a call for a "New International Economic Order" to respond more effectively to the demands of the South. Precisely at this time, the five most powerful economic powers in the west came under new leadership: President Ford in the USA, Prime Minister Wilson in Britain, President Giscard d'Estaing in France, Chancellor Schmidt in the Federal Republic of Germany and Prime Minister Miki in Japan.(14 )All of these leaders, save Ford were ex-finance ministers well versed in complex economic problems and aware that solutions had to be reached collectively and quickly. In December 1974, President Giscard d'Estaing converted the meetings of the European Council to an annual basis. Then, following closely behind Chancellor Schmidt, he went to the USA to discuss plans for a more comprehensive economic summit with President Ford.(15)

Source: Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto.

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