The G20 summit: A billion-dollar waste of time

Why are we hosting a useless, money-sucking international photo op?

Adrien Veczan / CP

For a meeting that is supposed to make the world safer and more secure, the combined G8/G20 summit in Huntsville, Ont., and Toronto seems to entail an enormous amount of destruction and dislocation.

Ontario’s Muskoka cottage country has been turned into a walled security zone. The most valuable few acres of real estate in the country—downtown Toronto—will be isolated and protected for the benefit of 20,000 international dignitaries, delegates and journalists. And keep in mind the $1.2-billion price tag only represents taxpayers’ costs to host the summits.

The economic inconvenience to citizens and businesses will be many times greater. The University of Toronto’s St. George campus will be shut down for the duration. The CN Tower will be shuttered. Theatres will be cancelled due to lack of access to the downtown core. Banks and financial firms will move their trading floors to off-site locations. Some firms have told their workers to stay home. It’s like a hurricane is about to hit downtown Toronto, except the weather is nicer.

All this outrageous cost and bother might be defensible if there was evidence summits on this scale are absolutely necessary. If the fate of the world depended on bringing the leaders of 20 of the most important countries together for a weekend, then we’d be prepared to do our part. Unfortunately, there’s precious little evidence that this is the case. Consider how we got to this level of G-meeting madness.

The phenomenon began modestly in 1973 when George Schultz, the U.S. secretary of the treasury, invited the finance ministers of France, Britain and Germany to dinner to discuss international monetary conditions. It went so well that the next year Japan was invited to attend. The G5 was born. When France hosted the get-together in 1975, Italy was invited. Ergo the G6.

U.S. president Gerald Ford brought Canada to the table in 1976 to forestall European domination of the little club. And when Japan hosted the event the next year, it was decided seven was enough. For the next several decades, G7 meetings served to acquaint the leaders of the free world with each other, and to create a forum for solving their joint problems.

Concerted action—such as 1979 action on oil prices, 1985’s Plaza Accord to reduce the value of the U.S. dollar and a joint statement on Kosovo in 1999—was relatively easy when the group was small and all members shared a common belief in open markets and democracy. These get-togethers were also rather inexpensive. When Canada hosted the 1981 G7 at Château Montebello, the total cost ran $5.5 million.
After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Russia was invited along and the G7 became the G8. Then former prime minister Paul Martin made it his goal to turn summitry more inclusive, the result being the G20. The Toronto meeting will be the fourth formal assembly of the G20, which now replaces the G8 as the main international body for economic co-operation.

The new group includes China, the world’s second largest economy, as well as representatives from all major regions and perspectives: including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, South Africa, India and Brazil.
And yet to call it the G20 is actually an underestimate. Spain is not a member but will attend the Toronto summit, along with Malawi, the Netherlands, Ethiopia and Vietnam. The European Union is a permanent member. The heads of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank will be there as well. In the interests of inclusivity, the invite list keeps getting bigger and bigger.

This expanding scale of the G20 clearly presents its greatest obstacle to success. Besides the enormous cost of providing security and lodging for everyone involved, the opportunity for consensus is greatly reduced. While the G20 has had some early successes, these seem largely due to its novelty. Over time, the G20 looks set to turn into an itinerant version of the sclerotic United Nations. And who wants that?

A communiqué on financial issues from the G20 released last week, ahead of the Toronto meeting, revealed many divergent opinions on key issues. Most new members of the G20 do not share Europe’s fears of exploding debts and deficits, for instance. A similar split was apparent with a proposal for an international banking tax, which Canada opposed.

Most of the heavy lifting for international diplomacy and finance does not actually occur at leaders’ meetings anyway. The G20 communiqué came from Busan, South Korea, where the various finance ministers and central bankers had been meeting. But if most decisions can be made by underlings assembled in relative quiet, why even bother with a formal leaders’ summit? In other words, why spend a billion dollars on a prime ministerial photo op when the finance ministers can get the job done for a fraction of the cost?

Finally, small ad hoc efforts often seem to provide the most effective solutions when it comes to crises. Last year, Maclean’s columnist Andrew Coyne reported on the unprecedented international effort to curtail the global banking crisis (“Inside the meeting that saved the world,” Oct. 19, 2009). But it wasn’t the G20 that saved the world. It was the finance ministers of the original G7 countries, a group that technically doesn’t even exist anymore. The G20 has been a complete bust at preventing financial contagion.

Certainly the new economic powers of the world, including China, Brazil and India, deserve a say in global issues. With much of Europe and the United States in grave financial difficulty, these countries have become crucial to international stability and growth. The balance of world power is clearly changing and this needs to be acknowledged.

And yet the practicality of summitry is also changing. Meetings that began as informal get-togethers between like-minded friends have become unwieldy, expensive monstrosities. There’s no need to create a travelling mini-UN circus when less formal meetings can be much more effective. In the interests of sanity, we should make Toronto’s G20 summit the last of its kind.

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