Obama and Harper will march in lockstep at G8

Canada and the U.S. are historic allies at the international summit

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The G8 economic summit began as the G5 in 1975 when Valéry Giscard d'Estaing hosted the heads of government of the United States, Japan, West Germany and Britain in what he called "a walk in the woods," in Rambouillet, France.

The group was enlarged to become the G7 the next year in Puerto Rico, when U.S. President Gerald Ford decided that if the Europeans could bring the Italians to Puerto Rico, he would bring the Canadians.

That's pretty much how it's been ever since - the Canadians come with the Americans, and sometimes act as a bridge to the Europeans and Japanese. There was the time at the Bonn summit in 1985 when President François Mitterrand pushed back from the table in exasperation with Ronald Reagan, and Brian Mulroney followed the French president to the washroom to make sure he didn't bolt the meeting.

One more thing - the G7 became the G8 in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev essentially invited himself to the meeting. Weeks later, he was ousted in the coup of August 1991, and by the end of the year the Soviet Union itself was dissolved and Mother Russia took its seat in the person of Boris Yeltsin.

Arriving for the opening of his first G8 economic summit today, Barack Obama can point over to Stephen Harper in the class photo and say, "he's with me." (Provided, of course, that Harper isn't detained in the washroom as he was for the photo call at the G20 summit in London last April.) Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian host, will be the guy checking out the chicks.

The G20, which grew out of a group of finance ministers, includes emerging economic powers such as China, India and Brazil, as well as the industrialized democracies of the old G7. And the G20, in turn, is not to be confused with the APEC, the Asia Pacific Economic Forum, where the leaders usually dress up for the photo call as waiters in an Asian restaurant. Then, of course, there's the Western hemisphere summit, and finally the Three Amigos, the North American summit.

Canada, being a chronic joiner of multilateral clubs, belongs to them all. This list of summits doesn't include the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, to say nothing of the World Trade Organization and the UN.

In all these organizations, our leverage on the world stage comes in large part from our proximity to, and influence with, the United States, nowhere more so than in the G8. Canada's role as a bridge between America and Europe was first articulated in a New York speech by Sir Robert Borden at the time of the First World War. And it was Borden's obstinacy that got Canada its own seat at the table, separate from the British delegation, at the Versailles peace talks. You can look this up in Margaret MacMillan's splendid book, Paris 1919. As Borden put it to Lloyd George, the British PM of the day, Canada had lost more men in the trenches of the war than Portugal had put in the field.

The role of the G7 and now the G8 has expanded over the years to include a political as well as an economic communiqué, reflecting the work of "sherpas" - aides - carrying words to the summit camp site.

This year's politically sensitive issues undoubtedly include Iran, nuclear non-proliferation, the Middle East, Africa, HIV-AIDs and climate change.

But it's the economic agenda that has returned to the forefront of the leaders' attention in the middle of the global recession. It's hard to forecast a timeline for recovery, and how much more stimulus, in the way of deficits, might be necessary to encourage it.

Keep an eye on Obama. The U.S. savings rate has jumped from negative territory to 6.9 per cent - no one is spending. The U.S. lost another 425,000 jobs last month, bringing its unemployment within reach of double digits at 9.5 per cent. There's already nearly $800 billion in Obama's recovery package, which with the bailouts of Wall St. and Detroit brings the American current deficit to a staggering $1.75 trillion, or 12.9 per cent of GDP. This is the sort of number that usually brings the World Bank and International Monetary Fund knocking at the door of countries facing financial ruin.

Harper, he's with Obama. They've established a strong working relationship since their bilateral meeting in February, particularly over the bailout of the North American auto industry. There's stuff in there that could only have been agreed on by the two principals, over several conversations.

Obama might come from the centre left, just as Harper comes from the centre right, but they are both pragmatists, and as the leaders of the United States and Canada at the G8, they will be very much in step.

 
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