Prime Minister Stephen Harper is facing a decision that could fundamentally change the ordering of global affairs and determine Canada's future role on the international stage.
Away from the more pressing concern of nurturing a fragile economic recovery, governments in the Group of 20 nations, whose leaders reconvene in Pittsburgh this week for the third time in less than a year, are engaged in a debate about whether the G20 will remain the global economy's steering committee once the financial crisis has finally passed.
By historical accident, Mr. Harper finds himself in a position to play a pivotal role in determining the outcome.
As host of next year's meeting of Group of Eight wealthy countries, Mr. Harper must choose whether to expand the summit to include India and other developing countries, or exclude those nations in favour of the clubbier and less chaotic G8 structure.
The stakes are high.
For the economists who believe the crisis could have been avoided if countries such as the United States and China trusted more in each other, finding the right balance between richer countries and emerging powers is seen as vital to bringing longer-term stability to the global economy.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harper must also weigh a more parochial question: Is Canada's place in this future global order secure? As the geopolitical sands shift, relatively smaller powers like Canada aren't assured a place at the table, academic observers and former officials say.
By hosting another G20 summit next year, Mr. Harper could create momentum for a means of overseeing the global affairs at which Canada has a firm place, undermining persistent arguments that global economic, environmental and security matters are better managed by achieving consensus among major powers such as the U.S., China, Japan, India and the bigger European countries.
“Canada now has to make a very calculated and difficult decision about what it wants to do,” Andres Rozental, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a former Mexican deputy foreign minister, said in an interview from London. “Canada has a large stake in this issue. In the new architecture, Canada, Italy and some other countries might fall by the wayside.”
Mr. Harper hasn't yet stated how he intends to approach the issue.
The G20 – conceived after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s as a place for finance ministers and central bank governors to exchange notes on the global economy – lacks the deep roots of the G8 and therefore could be unwound if the political will to hold it together recedes, said Andrew Cooper, a distinguished fellow at the Waterloo, Ont.-based Centre for International Governance Innovation.
Leaders of the G20, which includes 19 countries ranging from Argentina to Germany to Saudi Arabia, plus the European Union, met for the first time in November in Washington at the invitation of former president George W. Bush.
The decision to convene the G20 was mainly one of convenience as the structure already existed.
But unlike the financial crises that swept through emerging markets in the later part of the last decade, G20 members such as Argentina and Indonesia had little to do with the latest financial meltdown.
That leaves the door open to configuring a new group, or proceeding with the status quo.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in August that he will convene what he called a G14 when France takes over from Canada as G8 host in 2011.
Mr. Sarkozy's group would include the G8 countries of the U.S., Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy, Russia and Canada, along with China, India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Egypt.
Pierre Pettigrew, who served as trade and foreign affairs minister in the Liberal cabinets of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, said there remains an argument in diplomatic circles that the G8 should be shrunk rather than enlarged.
The reasoning for this is that groups as large as the G20 are unworkable because there are too many interests at the table to achieve consensus.
Since China's gross domestic product has surpassed those of every G8 member with the exception of the U.S. and Japan, most experts say it is now inconceivable to make decisions on the world economy without the Chinese government at the table. For those who support smaller groupings, that means forcing the European countries to speak with one voice and cutting countries such as Canada and Australia out of the discussion.
“It is a very critical moment for Canada,” Mr. Pettigrew said. “We have to make sure we are there in that grouping, whatever it is. There are some scenarios in which we aren't.”