A prime minister’s lot is not a happy one. Think of Stephen Harper’s unenviable task chairing the upcoming G8 and G20 summit meetings. These gatherings of world leaders supposedly afford a very public opportunity for the chair to advance his country’s national interests, while working with other leaders to solve global problems in an innovative fashion.

Unfortunately for him, the sterner reality is that he has relatively little room for manoeuvre, and still less for brokering immediate significant change. There are at least four factors constraining attempts to manage issues on a global scale.

The first is procedural. As a practical matter, each summit is a prisoner of the previous one. Intensive preparation is key – there are no spontaneous decisions. The Toronto G20 meeting will mostly follow up what happened in Pittsburgh, especially given the continuing impact of the financial crisis that precipitated the meeting there.

The second is the press of events. If members of the European Union are still struggling to stave off economic collapse and defend the euro, the Toronto G20 will focus on fighting that fire and ensuring that it does not spread. There will be little time or patience for ambitious initiatives, no matter how worthy, that don’t bear directly on the main problem at hand.

The third is the evolving structure of international relations. The move to expand the G8 to the G20 took place for pragmatic reasons – the global financial crisis could not be dealt with unless emerging economies (especially China, India and Brazil) became part of the solution. But greater inclusiveness comes with a significant increase in the number of players. Even the United States has to face limits on its ability to lead on key issues. The recent Turkish-Brazilian foray into the Iranian nuclear issue illustrates the gratuitous poaching on the preserve of the traditional great powers – unthinkable even five years ago.

The fourth is that Canada has little or no “hard” power. In this altered setting, Canada stands somewhat isolated with only one natural regional partner; Canada is too small, economically and militarily, to determine events unilaterally. Painful though it is to contemplate, if Canada did not exist, the G8 and the G20 discussion of global problems would be largely unaffected.

Given the real limitations facing a prospective summit chair, what is a well-intentioned prime minister to do? Primarily, he should ensure that international rules developed through the summit process reflect Canadian national interests. Canada cannot afford to be a simple rule-taker, cannot expect to be a primary rule-maker, but can and must do the hard work to become a significant rule-shaper. (Current efforts to bring Canadian experience to bear on new international financial regulation fit comfortably into this role.) Therefore, Canada should set the work agenda for future summits.

Broad-ranging work on international financial regulation is already under way, and Canada is fully engaged.

There are several other fields where Canadian intellectual leadership could also be effective. Approaches to generate progress on trade and investment rules can be critical for this country.

Development is an area where the rhetorical pieties around accountability and effectiveness need to be translated into specific donor undertakings to co-ordinate an otherwise fragmented international approach.

Another critical field where multiple threads need to be woven together involves energy and climate change. Here the need is to explore and delineate the linkages among a number of key elements, notably research and development priorities, process standards, monitoring and reporting techniques, and security of energy supply. The Toronto G20 could commission or invite international organizations to provide detailed proposals for the next G20 summits.

Overall, Canada could set the international agenda seeking pragmatic solutions to global problems and set the parameters for future global negotiations.

From the perspective of the Canadian summit chair, a judicious combination of realism and ambition is called for. The limits of Canadian influence must be acknowledged, but the opportunity to become the intellectual engine of these new and evolving global decision-making institutions must be embraced.

Gordon Smith is a former deputy foreign minister and G8 summit sherpa, and is now a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). Tom Bernes is vice-president of programs and acting executive director at CIGI and has held senior positions with the IMF, the World Bank and the Canadian government.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • A former Canadian deputy foreign minister, NATO ambassador and G7/G8 Sherpa, Gordon Smith is a leading expert on the evolution of the G20 and global summitry.

  • Thomas A. Bernes is a CIGI distinguished fellow. After an illustrious career in the Canadian public service and at leading international economic institutions, Tom was CIGI’s executive director from 2009 to 2012.