It is good to see it being acknowledged that this business of convening the heads of government of, say, 20-ish countries to put out a really big global fire is something Paul Martin has been advocating for a very long time. As a refresher, here’s Martin advocating the leaders’ G-20 in Foreign Affairs magazine in May/June 2005, when he was still prime minister. That article begins with the all-time classic Paul Martin opening line: “In 1995, the peso crisis struck Mexico, and Latin America seemed to teeter on the brink of economic collapse.” Wake up. Wake up! The Mexican peso crisis is a metaphor. He’s not actually going to walk you through it again.
Martin’s thesis was that the G-20 finance ministers’ meetings, which he so dearly loved when he was finance minister, should be replicated among heads of governments once he became one of those. A tremendous amount of energy at the sometimes-splitting, sometimes-not Department of Foreign Affairs And/Or International Trade was devoted to getting a so-called L-20 (or leaders’ G-20) to happen.
Response was tepid, if by “tepid” you mean “never, but never gonna happen.” I believe the Australians shared Martin’s enthusiasm. The Americans could not possibly have been less interested. A Japanese diplomat I quizzed was amazingly blunt, for a Japanese diplomat: “We are very against.” The Brits needed persuading that there would be a subject for an entirely new summit meeting, with the attendant expense, organizational headache, time commitment and bureaucratic followup.
This business of a subject proved an amazingly tough nut to crack. Martin was eager for 20-ish heads of government to meet. He was less clear on who they should be — the same as the finance G-20? Plus Israel? Plus Arab countries? South Americans? Which ones? China, Korea, Japan, Indonesia: pick two but not three — quick! Quick! But the guest list was a cinch compared to this question of what the meeting would be about. Martin had no end of ideas. Global epidemics? The money networks of global terrorism? Shipping? Infrastructure? Refugee migration?
The big problem facing the L-20 idea was that it was hardly clear to anyone except Martin why routine matters should be treated outside routine international forums. Because here’s the thing. It’s absolutely true that the G-8 is a restrictive, narrow forum for discussing problems that very often stretch outside the North-Atlantic-democracies-plus-Japan-and-sometimes-Russia. But it’s not as though other meetings with different geometries are exactly rare. British post-colonial diaspora, minus the U.S.: we call that one the Commonwealth. North-meets-south, without the Yanks and Brits to drown everyone else out: that’s the Francophonie. U.S. and Canada plus Asian tigers: that’s APEC, plus you get cool local garments to take home from the summits. Canada+U.S. plus their own problematic and promising backyards: Summit of the Americas. Rich people + heads of rich goverments + Angelina Jolie: that’s Davos. Everyone at once: United Nations.
None of these geometries is perfect, but they’re all handy, and over the course of a year, a prime minister who attends all of them can get a hell of a lot done. And there is precisely one country whose prime minister gets to be a big fish at meetings of the Commonwealth, the Francophonie, APEC and the Summit of the Americas, all while at least having a seat, if no particular clout, at the G-8 table. That’s Canada. So I’m honestly not exaggerating when I say the general reaction from Canada’s friends abroad when Martin kept showing up at all of these meetings with an idea for another meeting was bafflement.
But that’s when business was routine. In a crisis, the choice of topic is less of a challenge — they can talk about the crisis, after all — and the details of the membership list are not insurmountable. So the L-20 came together quite rapidly. The unanswered questions are whether this meeting would have happened anyway, in the absence of Martin’s lobbying; and whether the L-20 as an institution will outlive the topic of its first meeting.