Sunday, June 20, 2010

Summits and the height of foolishness

As my train pulled into Toronto’s Union Station today, the VIA Rail staff announced that trains would be diverted to suburban stations during the upcoming G20 leaders’ summit. This is just one more undesirable outcome of the foolish decision to host the G8/G20 summits in Muskoka and Toronto, a decision that has become increasingly unpopular as Canadians learn more about the scale of the disruptions it will cause and the price tag (currently estimated at $1 billion, and governments tend to deliberately understate the likely costs of expensive boondoggles).

It’s worth reflecting on what these summits entail and how this one came to be held in Toronto in the first place. Summits are little more than expensive press conferences featuring select groups of political leaders. Little is actually done at summits; 99% of the work is performed by government functionaries over the year leading up to the event. In their current form they trace their origins to the meetings of the leaders of the Great Powers during the Second World War, although no one would confuse the cast of mostly unknowns descending on Toronto with Roosevelt and Churchill (although Stalin may be called to mind by at least one of the attendees; I’ll let you guess which one).

The G20 is the offspring of the G8, which in turn contracts to the G7 and then G5 as you work back in time. Notwithstanding press releases issued by our last several prime ministers, Canada is a real minnow at these meetings, our presence at the table more a product of Cold War-era geopolitics than any real economic might on Canada’s part. Canada’s economy is about the same size as that of California, and in practical terms Governor Schwarzenegger has more global political influence than does our PM. Few if any of the other countries at the summit table really care two hoots about Canada’s interests or ideas, and I say this not to be snide but to be factual. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin was influential in getting the G8 to add an expanded G20 meeting (not exactly a Nobel-prize worthy achievement, but it’s something), and one of the key topics of this year’s summits – the troubled banking sector in some parts of the world – is a problem Canadian banks dodged because of tighter regulations than those in place elsewhere. This fact (plus the one that we’re hosting the meetings) gives Canada a slightly higher profile than we have had at most summits, but after the formalities of the summits don’t expect foreign leaders to be burning up the phone lines to 24 Sussex Drive for follow up advice on bank regulations.

It is valid to question what purpose is actually served by these summits. One rationale is that regular face-to-face meetings of the world’s most powerful leaders is a good thing in its own right, and likely serves to foster greater international cooperation generally and iron out misunderstandings before they happen. There is little evidence to support such a theory, and in any event, if this were the true purpose Canada and Italy would be tossed from the G8 in favour of Brazil, China and India. Another rationale is that these summits focus leaders’ attention on the pressing economic issues of the day and facilitate coordinated responses. Again, there’s not much evidence based on the outcomes of past summits. The reality is that an institution already exists to address such goals, and it’s the United Nations, which already has in place the programs and agencies capable of working on the issues discussed at summits. Take for example Prime Minister Harper’s announcement that he’d like to use this summit to encourage world leaders to spend more on women’s health in developing nations. I’m all for that, and so is the UN, which already has small armies of staff in its various agencies working on this very issue. So why not cut a check for a billion dollars to the UN Development Program, earmark it for women’s issues, and move the G20 summit to UN HQ in New York, for which we’ve already paid and which already has in place the necessary infrastructure for large gatherings of world leaders?

Why is it that Canadians will be paying over a billion dollars to host a sampling of the world’s politicians? To begin with, this year was Canada’s turn to host the G8 leaders, and no leader ever turns down the chance to host this party and get his picture taken with the US president, whatever the costs. A summit invariably requires an army of security, and one school of thought suggests it is therefore desirable to host it in a relatively out-of-the way place (although the US chose to hold it in Pittsburgh last time, not exactly a hunting camp in the woods). The Canadian government went the backwoods route, and conveniently found a location in the riding of cabinet minister Tony Clement, a riding where the election outcome is not always certain (Clement once won it by a couple-dozen votes). It was only after this decision was made that it was decided (it’s a little unclear if Canada was pressured into it or if the PM’s office gaily volunteered) Canada should also host the G20 leaders summit immediately after the G8 summit: two summits instead of one. A problem of scale suddenly ensued: it’s possible to host seven leaders and their entourages at a cottage country resort, but no way could the G20 circus be accommodated there. And because a substantial chunk of Canada’s security and law enforcement infrastructure would already be concentrated two hours north of Toronto, one of the few logistical options remaining was to have the G20 crowd meet there. In other words, one poor decision pushed the government into an even poorer one.

Notwithstanding the media delight over follies like the fake lake and model wooden lighthouses, the lion’s share of G8/G20 spending will pay for security. The billion dollar price tag is four times the amount of money the Canadian government says it will spend annually on international women’s health issues in coming years. It is hard to see any great value stemming from these summits at the international level generally or for the citizens of host nations who get stuck with the ever-increasing price tags and inconveniences. Let’s face it: the only summit series that ever mattered to Canadians ended in 1972 when Paul Henderson scored, so maybe we should politely decline any future invitations to host summits.

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