Following an underwhelming G8/G20 at home, Canada won't get too many more opportunities to be among the world's decision makers

Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but it rarely advances the national interest. At a time when Canada's voice in key international forums is increasingly muted, next week's G20 Summit in Seoul, South Korea, affords an opportunity for Canada to contribute more prominently to the collective global effort to make timely, effective decisions.

This observation may seem odd, since Canada hosted not one, but two summits during the past summer. In retrospect, however, the outcomes of these two gatherings can only be considered disappointing.

In particular, being the first country to host G8 and G20 summits back-to-back gave Canada a chance to shape the international debate over effective global governance (especially as regards to renovation of international financial institutions). The eventual outcome of the two events, however, did not illuminate the respective roles of the two gatherings so much as demonstrate the confusion over them.

Institutionally, Canada lost an opportunity to drive reform that the next G20 hosts (South Korea, France and Mexico) are unlikely to pass up. Canada's next G20 chairmanship will occur in 20 years.

In addition to the Huntsville/ Toronto anticlimax, a pattern of Canadian non-involvement has been steadily emerging. At the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, Canada's profile was decidedly low. Canada was specifically not invited to the climactic Dec. 18 "mini-summit" of some 25 leaders called together to try to break the impasse over the content of a final agreement.

As it happened, the conference outcome was underwhelming, but Canada was not in a position to affect the results, one way or the other.

In the case of the United Nations Security Council, Canada's non-involvement is involuntary -- we simply lost the council membership vote, eventually by a disturbingly large number. As key issues of war and peace reach the council in the months ahead, we will not be at the table.

And now in the trade field, reports suggest that Canada will be excluded from the "next big thing," the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

This is rather a sad comedown for the country that used to broker breakthroughs in trade talks as part of the mighty Quad (the other members were the U.S., the EC/EU and Japan).

For Canada, the success of the G20 process is vital, and we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines once again, because if the G20 turns out to be too unwieldy or divided, the likelihood is very high that a smaller, more effective group will emerge. Based on immediate past performance, if this happens, Canada will be left out.

What directions, then, should Canada follow in Seoul?

  • Canada has a long-term interest in developing and maintaining effective international institutions. For Canada, issues of institutional architecture are not theoretical; they are matters on which it should take the lead as the G20 evolves.

  • The G20's first order of business should remain managing the aftermath of the financial crisis. As that proceeds, however, Canada should plan for broadening the G20 agenda to include areas such as climate change, energy security and even nuclear nonproliferation, where the linkages with economic policy are clear and the shared vulnerability of states makes them natural additions to G20 discussions.
  • To help shape an evolving process, Canada should focus on crafting a systematic research agenda for the G20. In this regard, Canada should press for a G20 think-tank network. The network would track G20 commitments and accomplishments as well as undertaking specific pieces of research for leaders. It could also act as a G20 outreach function, ensuring that G20 approaches are well understood elsewhere and providing a window on views of non-G20 states, especially in the global south.
  • Logistically, Canada should push for the troika approach to summit management. This would mean that the past, current and future personal representatives of world leaders ( "sherpas") would work as a team to ensure continuity, consistent fair treatment of participants, and meaningful followup on summit commitments. G20 summits will only be productive if the preparation/debriefing cycle is systematically maintained. The organizational challenge of managing the work of 20 leaders will be considerable. The secretariat with its revolving troika management could be situated in Canada if we were to offer to finance it.
  • Finally, Canada should lead work on resolving the relationship between the G8 and the G20, with a view to bringing the G8 summits to an end. One option for moving in this direction would be to use a new G20 foreign ministers forum to take on discussion of key security issues. This may be a natural progression after the financial crisis eases and the aftermath is re-absorbed into the G20 finance ministers' agenda.

For additional details on the foregoing recommendations, see the paper published today by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy: "Canada, the G8 and the G20: A Canadian Approach to Shaping Global Governance in a Shifting International Environment" ( policyschool.ca).To quote Paul Heinbecker, our former colleague and one-time Canadian permanent representative to the UN in New York, Canada needs to "get back in the game."

Gordon Smith, a former deputy foreign minister and G8 summit sherpa is executive director of the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation. Peter Heap is a former foreign service officer and now a senior research associate at the Centre for Global Studies.

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