It is a source of pride to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien that more than 30 years after he first entered politics, time has not altered his fondness for blunt talk - even in the most exclusive gatherings. So when he hosted last week's meeting of leaders of the world's seven leading industrialized nations in Halifax, he was particularly pleased to discover a kindred spirit. During a meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who joined the G-7 leaders for the last part of their meeting, Yeltsin expressed unhappiness at the prospect of a "working dinner" planned for that evening with the other leaders. "In my country, we either work or dine, but not at the same time," said Yeltsin. Responded Chrétien: "This is different: you will have to decide, Boris, whether you want to talk or eat." Yeltsin, pressing his point, said: "But I have so much to say." Fine, concluded Chrétien with a small smile: "Then it is settled, Boris. You will grow thin at the dinner while you talk, and I will grow fat while I eat."
Things are not usually that straightforward at G-7 meetings, which have become notorious over the years for their rigid scheduling, painstaking attention to protocol and the muted language of their final agreements. And in many ways, the exchange between Chrétien and Yeltsin still marked an exception to that conduct. When it ended last weekend, the G-7 leaders and Yeltsin hailed a series of agreements that covered everything from the need to promote job creation to the importance of further freeing up world trade, to the need for more co-ordinated international action to end the renewed fighting in the former Yugoslavia.
But at the same time, the meeting, and the final agreement it produced, underscored the inability of even the world's most sophisticated economic powers to find solutions to the increasingly complex problems that bedevil them. The seven leaders demanded the "immediate and unconditional release of the remaining hostages." But that only drew further attention to the escalating crisis that broke out near Sarajevo while they met, as Bosnian government troops threatened a major offensive to break the three-year-old Serbian siege around the city. The leaders also agreed that job creation should be a common priority, but disagreed on how it is best achieved. And while they were unanimous in voicing concern that the huge amount of private capital moving electronically around the world each day can contribute to economic instability, they offered no concrete solutions on how to control it. In meetings with Yeltsin, who joined the final day and a half of the three-day gathering, they chastised him for the behavior of Russian troops in the continuing conflict in the region of Chechnya, but again offered no specific remedies.
And those were all issues upon which they agreed in principle. On several other matters - the worsening U.S.-Japan trade dispute, for instance, and France's surprising summit-eve announcement that it will resume nuclear testing - member countries papered over their differences. They simply agreed that the meeting was not an appropriate occasion to talk about them.
Within that rather limited context, Canada and Chrétien emerged as modest winners. As the Prime Minister intended, the meeting took account of the increasingly sharp and rapid currency fluctuations among industrialized nations. The leaders' agreement committed them to work towards an "improved early warning system" to prevent a repeat of sudden financial crises, like the one that rocked Mexico last December. They agreed that two key institutions - the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank - should be overhauled to help countries respond faster to financial shocks and to channel aid more effectively to the poorest nations.
The leaders agreed to double the $80-billion special aid fund already in place. The General Arrangements to Borrow is run by the International Monetary Fund: in recognition of their increasing economic strength, some Asian countries will now be expected to contribute to the fund. Taiwan, for one, has currency reserves of about $100 billion, or about six times the size of Canada's reserves, and is one of those countries now expected to play a key new role. Still, some Canadian officials acknowledged privately, the final wording of the communiqué was more vague than they had counted on, and not as much time was spent discussing the issue as they had hoped. At the same time, Canadian officials claimed success on several other issues, such as the emphasis on further reduction of international trade barriers, which was one of the Canadian priorities coming into the meeting.
Chrétien performed his duties as host with the same judicious mix of low-key, folksy informality that has characterized his behavior on the world stage since coming to power in November, 1993. Those qualities appear to work well - and to contradict Chrétien's frequent assertion when he was in Opposition that he did not "want to get too buddy-buddy" with other leaders. In fact, he now has close ties with several leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, with whom Chrétien played golf on Saturday, and Germany's chancellor, Helmut Kohl, whom he accompanied immediately after the meeting on a three-day trip to the Northwest Territories. Both men publicly and effusively praised Chrétien for his "businesslike" manner in hosting the summit.
At one point, when the leaders expanded their meeting to allow aides to attend, he surprised them by jumping up and rushing to the door, where he exhorted everyone outside to "get moving, we need more chairs at once." As a result, several high-ranking officials from the various delegations, including several foreign affairs ministers and James Bartleman, Canada's assistant deputy minister of foreign affairs, were pressed into duty, carrying chairs into the meeting room.
Overall, Chrétien's authority in presiding over the meeting was helped by the fact that he, along with Kohl and France's newly elected president, Jacques Chirac, are the only leaders with a high degree of personal popularity at home. Japan's Tomiichi Murayama and Italy's Lamberto Dini are both recognized as interim figures within their own countries, while Clinton, Britain's John Major and Yeltsin all have to deal with unsympathetic electorates.
Still, perhaps the greatest cause of relief for Canadian officials came from what did not take place. They were privately worried that the sometimes testy relations between Chrétien and Chirac - who in the past has expressed tacit support for Quebec sovereignty - might result in the French president using such a high-profile event either to snub Chrétien or to lend solace and attention to sovereigntists. As it happened, Chirac made only one polite query about the state of the sovereignty movement during a private bilateral meeting with Chrétien. Senior French officials said that, in office, Chirac is likely to tone down his public enthusiasm for Quebec and adhere to his government's traditional policy of "non-interference but non-indifference."
And publicly, Chirac seemed to take more delight in tweaking the noses of the Americans. At a private briefing with French journalists, Chirac made a point out of saying that when he went to Washington for a pre-summit meeting with Clinton and other senior American officials, he did so only in order to "tell them what France will do, not to ask their advice." That, specifically, included his deeply controversial decision to renew testing nuclear weapons in the Pacific - a decision that was generally, although politely, denounced by his G-7 colleagues.
Behind the careful planning and the almost painfully cautious phrasing of the final declaration lay an even more subtle - and far more intriguing - web of plot and subterfuge reflecting the shifting alliances among member countries. Canada, for instance, had to weigh its annoyance over France's resumption of nuclear testing against a desire not to cause offence with a Quebec referendum likely only months away. In dealing with Japan, Canada continued its quiet support in recent years for granting it a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, which now has 12 members. In return, Canada, which now has the right to hold a seat on the security council for one two-year term every 10 years, would expect Japan, once seated on the council, to support a more frequent Canadian presence. But Canada has to keep its endorsement of Japan relatively muted. France and Britain, both permanent council members, are cool to the idea of admitting new members because that would diminish their own influence and draw unwelcome attention to their relative decline as world powers. And if Canada annoyed those two countries too much by supporting Japan's case, either one could draw attention to the tenuous nature of Canada's own claim to membership in the G-7, given the larger economies of several excluded countries.
Canada's role, as well as the future of the entire Group of Seven, were being questioned in Halifax. When the meeting of the original five members took place in 1975, the group could lay legitimate claim to representing the most advanced, dynamic parts of the world economy. Since then, however, the Pacific Rim has emerged as an economic powerhouse, with parts of Latin America close behind and China promising to dwarf all the others by early in the next century. The leaders sidestepped that issue, avoiding any discussion of new members for the group. Chrétien dismissed such talk by saying that opening the doors to emerging economic powers would result in an unwieldy "G-22." And despite a global economy in flux all around them, letting new members into their exclusive club seems to be something the G-7 leaders fear the most.
Maclean's June 26, 1995