Carving out our role in the world

The School of Public Policy Student Association started their 2010 lecture series with a presentation addressing the G8, the G20 and the shape of Canada’s global influence featuring Dr. Gordon Smith.

Smith, University of Victoria Centre for Global Studies executive director and a former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, gave a historical overview of Canada’s role in the G8 and the G20 and suggested ways for Canada to remain internationally influential.

Smith said the relationships formed by leaders at summits can determine whether the summit succeeds or fails. He profiled Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin’s relationship as an example of a productive partnership on the world stage.

“They develop a capacity to have empathy with other leaders,” said Smith. “Then the capacity which comes from that to make political tradeoffs when necessary.”

Smith said he thinks overcrowding is a deterrent to successful summits. An image of the September 2009 Pittsburgh summit table crowded by officials in suits illustrated potential difficulties. He suggested that summits run best when the fewest possible officials are present and should ideally only include leaders.

“To make summits work, you have got to establish interpersonal relationships that go beyond the formal,” said Smith.

The presentation also discussed Canada’s changing influence. Canada had a formative role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and pioneered international peacekeeping.

“We’ve gone from a time when we may have exaggerated our role in the world to a time when we underestimate our role in the world,” said Smith.

While Canada’s international position is privileged, our influence has waned through international competition. Smith believes Canada could have better capitalized on this June’s G8 Muskoka summit.

“I feel we missed a very great opportunity to shape the G8/20 meetings,” said Smith “I know it may sound arrogant but as far as I’m concerned, Canada should be among the rule makers not the rule takers.”

Legitimacy issues, organizational focuses and influence imbalances were discussed during the presentation. The G8 is predominantly European and while the G20 is more inclusive it remains financially focused.

“When you come to the legitimacy of summits, these are self-created groups and there is no way that anyone will accept the legitimacy of a group from which they are excluded,” said Smith.

Smith believes the G20 should broaden its scope and include a foreign ministers summit He would like to see an additional African seat. Smith proposed creating an international network of think tanks and improving transparency and accountability across both groups. Canada’s partisan or “baggage free” international reputation gives Canada legitimate reason to take international initiative.

“I think what we have to do is take the opportunity to influence the future.”

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