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Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Never Ending Summit

Didn't we do this already?

Harper arrived Wednesday in Seoul, where he is expected to push for bold, co-ordinated economic action by the G20 world leaders. After the summit, the prime minister will travel to Yokohama, Japan, for this year's forum for Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation.

"It's going to be all economics all the time, two summits in a row," the CBC's Terry Milewski reported from Seoul on Wednesday.

Harper has warned his G20 counterparts ahead of the summit not to let the struggling recovery distract them from cutting budget deficits and trade imbalances.

I'm sure there's some sort of nit-picky bureaucratic distinction between the June junket in Toronto, and the Seoul junket this month. Besides we get to see the world leaders in their winter coats! So I'm sure that's worth the enormous cost of these glorified photo-ops. With billion dollar security price tags and $100,000 tables, the obvious questions is what all this globalized kabuki gets us? The six-figure furniture was so exorbitant that even Mr Fiscal Incontinence himself, Bob Rae, had to comment:

When you look at the price of these things it does seem completely out of line. It’s just amazing to me. I think a lot of the financial implications of this have not been fully understood by the government as it goes forward.

Maybe the carpenter needs to take a Rae Day or two. Perhaps that could bring down the price next time. Unfortunately our political masters have no intention of taking a day off, paid or unpaid. Politics is perception and the political class must be seen to be doing something, anything. Look at that Stephen Harper, off meeting world leaders and such, he's working hard for Canada, and he's an important guy because Barack Obama remembers his name. Or at least seems to remember. The American President does love his teleprompters.

There is certainly a value to summitry. Even with modern videoconferencing software, corporate executives are still shuttled around the world for face to face meetings. No doubt the same value added can apply to Presidential and Prime Ministerial confabs. Somethings are easier settled over port than online. Which makes the uselessness of these summits all the more apparent.

Ever tried to hold a meeting with twenty people? Plus associated hangers-on? At best the meeting becomes a kind of seminar or lecture, one or two people doing most of the talking, or everyone gets their five minutes to grandstand. There is no actual meeting, where a group of people actual talk and decide amongst themselves. Political scientists - to use an oxymoron - and historians generally put twelve as the maximum size for a functioning committee meeting. Beyond that it's just the chair and one or two loud-mouths running things, with everyone else watching the clock.

The G20 does feature one-on-one meetings, but given the number of people involved, it's only a few tightly scripted minutes of doubtful value. How much did Stephen Harper have to say to Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner last June? "So, Cristina, I hear it's hot all year in Buenos Aires? Not like Leaside, I can tell you that. Ever been to Leaside? It's kind of like Mimico without the lake." Ring! Next head of state! Like speed dating for politicians. 

Meetings with large groups of people that work, like say the Congress of Vienna or the Versailles Conference, last weeks and even months. Individual leaders get to know each other, mull their options and work out details to complex international problems, hopefully. There is almost no possibility for something like that happening at events like the G20. A summit is suppose to be about the human element, yet modern summitry has very little human interaction about it. Nothing spontaneous, nothing fun or interesting for observers or participants. Just another prescripted image making event, which is how the pols treat it. Everything from the opening red carpet strut, to the final communique, are arranged weeks, or months in advance.

The photo-op is the main reason an ever growing list of "world leaders" show up for these events. A more subtle element at play in modern summitry is power. In a world where even the most powerful nations are buffeted by global markets, an illusion is projected that vast forces can be tamed by the global leviathans.

The vast forces at play are really the decisions of millions of ordinary people, buying, selling and working. A world in which the common folk can easily transfer their assets and themselves from one continent to the next, is a world in which national governments are limited in their power. Politicians don't like that. They don't like money men dumping their currency on world markets, because of short-sighted fiscal and monetary policy. They don't appreciate brain drains of their best and brightest to low-tax locales. The G20 Summits, and their policy trial balloons, are the flashing of bright white teeth to the markets and people of the world. Leviathan trying to reassert its authority.


Posted by Richard Anderson on November 18, 2010 | Permalink


A free vacation on the public dole. Meeting with like minded peers. The best in food and drink. Leaving home problems behind for a few days while convincing yourself that these meetings are beneficial to the wefare of your respectve country. Whats not to like ? How can these grand times ever be replaced by a video conference ?

Posted by: peterj | 2010-11-21 10:57:04 PM

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