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This Summit Season, Obama Envies Harper's Smooth Climb

Christopher Sands

Washington’s cherry blossoms have come and gone—a sure sign that now it is “Summit Season.” Over the next few weeks, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will attend a series of summit meetings. As the two leaders meet and greet one another from one venue to the next, how can we tell which meetings matter most?

International summits are a mix of substance and symbolism. The more substantive the gathering, the more significant it is. The more symbolic, the more the meeting will resemble a photo-op. Both Obama and Harper are famously policy wonks who prefer substantive meetings.

There was substance at the Korean nuclear summit last week, but the issues are difficult (read: the North Koreans are difficult) and so progress was limited in Seoul. Symbolism dominated.

The North American Leaders meeting in Washington on Monday was a sharp contrast with Seoul: fewer leaders, and a very substantive agenda. The United States is engaged in a matched set of clean energy dialogues, regulatory cooperation initiatives, and border security talks with Canada and Mexico. Military cooperation among the three is improving, as the the meeting of North American defence ministers in Ottawa on March 27 demonstrated. Obama may wish that Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon would play nicer with one another so that the continental agenda could be trilateral, but compared with most summits, this one was actually about getting things done together.

Starting April 10 is the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. As always, there is the hope that these meetings will lead to more hemispheric trade and security cooperation. Yet Brazil is a rival of the United States for leadership in the region, and countries like Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador have various grudges against the U.S. Many of the rest are small and struggling, hoping to solicit aid and trade. The result will be high on symbolism and low on substance, especially in contrast with the North American leaders’ meetings.

The United States hosts the G8 meeting in May, now shifted to Camp David, and the NATO summit shortly afterward in Chicago. The preoccupation of the G8 will be the global economy, and NATO will consider the future of the alliance as the Afghanistan mission concludes. There is broad agreement on the futures that participants would like to see (prosperity and peace, respectively) but how to get there will be hotly debated and as with the nuclear security talks in Korea, there will be no easy answers.

A mix of friends and frenemies will greet Obama and Harper at the G20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico in June. Call it jealousy or competitiveness, but Canada is locked in a love-hate relationship with some of these countries that envy the Canadian economy or compete for global (and U.S.) markets in the resource sector. Also, the G20 mix of great powers and emerging powers can crowd out the middle powers like Canada attending. As a rule, the larger and more diverse the group of leaders, the more symbolic the summit tends to be and the G20 has thus far borne this out.

By June, Obama will be nervously watching the U.S. Supreme Court, waiting for its judgment of his health care reforms—and his attention will be drawn away from the G20 by the urgency of his re-election campaign. Depending on how the polls look by then, Obama may be further distracted by the nagging worry that this will be his last Summit Season.

More than Obama, Harper can relax and try to enjoy the many international meetings ahead. With a majority government at last, he will have to endure another few Summit Seasons. That is not a bad thing to be able to look forward to with certainty, as Obama can tell him at any one of the meetings they’ll attend together from now through the summer.

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