It’s hard to generate much enthusiasm or hope for outcome of the G-8 summit underway in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. The summit — this is the 39th annual session — is long in the tooth but very short on bite.
The fundamental objective of these summits is to have world leaders reach some degree of consensus on bolstering the global economy. In recent years, however, the G-8 has fallen well short of the low-water mark on this aspect. The 2013 iteration is unlikely to be any different.
The reasons are self-evident. The western economies are, for the most part, still mired in debt and sluggish growth.
The world’s largest economy is sputtering and the prospects for robust recovery remain elusive, notwithstanding some recent hype about U.S. job creation numbers (which are modest), some early indications of rising consumer demand (which has not been accompanied significant growth in private fixed investment or productivity gains) and the start of a new energy boom in deep shale oil and gas that will reduce — but not eliminate — U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
The bigger problem, though, is Washington’s chronic domestic political gridlock, which undermines its claims for global leadership. To paraphrase the old English idiom, “leadership, like charity, begins at home.”
China, which has the world’s second largest economy, continues to grow but it is not a member of the G-8. In any event, it has a form of state capital and a model of economic growth that would make it odd man out with the others on fundamentals.
China does participate in the G-20 sessions, including the one in September in St. Petersburg, but the G-20 has of late generated even less consensus or leadership than the G-8.
The big problem with the G8 is Russia. Russia’s involvement in the G-8 is a major drag on both its economic and political discussions. Russian President Vladimir Putin is moving further away from any semblance of democracy — one of the G-7/8 cornerstones — and has little in common with his fellow summiteers.
When economic consensus is too difficult, summit leaders are usually able to rally around a pressing political issue of the day. At this summit, however, when the talk turns to the major political crisis on the agenda — Syria’s civil war, and how to stop it — the presence of Russia at the G-8 table becomes a palpable roadblock. Syria has already has hijacked the summit agenda from its UK host’s carefully prepared scripts on tax shelters, transparency, trade and gender-based violence. Russia, meanwhile, refuses even to acknowledge that Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people.
British Prime Minister David Cameron undoubtedly will push his noble initiative on child malnutrition as the easiest — or only — form of consensus for an otherwise divided group. Some have suggested a better idea would have been to scrub the summit and spend the £650 million on nutrition programs.
The saving grace, if there is one, is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper (along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel) usually stands out at G-8 summits — partly because of Canada’s less-than-anemic economic performance, but mostly because he understands and can articulate macro-economic views better than the others in the informal talks that invariably take place around the table.
And when it comes to Syria, both Germany and Canada have serious reservations about a U.S.-British-French proposal to supply arms to the Syria opposition because they could easily end up in the hands of Islamic extremists and further escalate the conflict. Harper, however, is now prepared to support his allies on this one because it will up the ante on Russia and Iran, who continue to arm Assad.
However, the real value of this trans-Atlantic junket is that it is allowing Harper to press the flesh with his European counterparts on the issue that matters most to Canada right now: a Canada-EU trade deal.
Harper has used his time judiciously, first to thank Cameron for his unwavering support for Canada’s position. His personal rapport with Canada’s “most reliable friend” is genuine and palpable — a rare bond of real friendship in today’s world.
The prime minister has also taken Canada’s case to Paris and Dublin, which do not want to see EU tariffs on Canadian beef lifted. He is also pressing Canada’s case on outstanding issues in the negotiations with EU President Jose Manuel Barossa, also attending the summit.
If Harper gets traction to clinch a trade deal before the summer is out, his time in Europe and at the G-8 will have been well spent.