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CANADA 2002 Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

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Paul Knox PAUL

Hostage to the events of the week

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G8 a virtual affair

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G8 a virtual affair

By PAUL KNOX, Globe and Mail Update

CALGARY — Rumour has it that leaders of eight industrial nations will begin an annual summit meeting on Wednesday in the Kananaskis wilderness.

Rumour has it they'll be talking about cleaning up Russia's nuclear detritus, about George W. Bush's plan for a provisional Palestinian state, about hitching Africa's wagon to globalization's star.

Rumour, I say, because the Group of Eight summit is a truly virtual affair. Nearly every purported fact you read or hear about it is not observed reality, but a verbal construct offered on faith. To some extent this is now true of many high-level international meetings. But not many of them take place at a distance of 130 kilometres from the people whose task is supposedly to report on them.

At last year's Americas summit in Quebec City, I was able to speak with some of the participants in a lobby not far from the site of their meetings. This year the lobby is the roped-off Rocky Mountain bush, populated principally by stately wildlife and poop-scooping police. At last report, each of the eight countries attending (plus the European Union) was to be allotted 16 places in a media pool, to be given limited, escorted access to the Kananaskis site. Many of the spots were reserved for photographers and camera operators.

At least one of the G8 leaders seems to relish the prospect of eternal deliverance from the global unwashed. An aide to French President Jacques Chirac on Monday suggested holding the annual conclave by conference call in future. "These summits are an expenditure of money and energy," this source told Reuters. "One wonders whether they could be cancelled and replaced by videoconference."

I grant you, these are not times when we should expect to be especially tactile with very important persons. I dislike it when media types whine about access. But this is a phenomenon worth recording. Readers, listeners and viewers should know that most media workers covering the summit will see the leaders only as disembodied figures on giant screens in a Calgary convention centre, with little or no opportunity to ask questions.

We will, of course, be told they had good working sessions, frank and open dialogue about the world's problems, and so on. We'll be offered a summary of their discussions, an "action plan" on economic recovery for Africa, and perhaps one or two other "deliverables," as they're known in the trade.

But aides have been working on the text of the action plan for months. For all I'll know, the G8 gang will approve it in five minutes, then spend a couple of days shooting pool, telling tall stories about the good old days and learning to love rye and Coke. (In these parts, I've been told, bartenders call a rye-and-Coke a "loudmouth." Feel free to confirm or contradict.)

Leaders today think nothing of jetting around the world from summit to summit. But there was a time when they rarely met. The G8 itself dates only from 1975 (when its members numbered seven). It was a French-German initiative and it was designed to be a low-key affair, without today's bureaucratic agenda, without the fanfare and without most of the media attention it now generates.

Those days are gone. Global politics is now much more uncertain than it was during the Cold War, so the leaders generate intense interest every time they get together. Worldwide opposition to the Western agenda for economic development is growing stronger, and protest organizers have seized on the G8 as an effective target for their critique.

Mr. Chretien's response is to hold the summit in a protest-proof zone and sharply limit the agenda. Despite the unreal atmosphere, the images should be more pleasing; we aren't likely to see a repeat of those frightening Quebec City tear-gas clouds in Calgary. But the carefully managed feeds of "information" won't necessarily recover credibility for the summit as an institution.

There's a bigger structural problem neither Mr. Chretien nor the other summiteers can do much about. It's the overwhelming military dominance of the United States in today's world, and its persistent disinclination to join others in grand global initiatives.

Sylvia Ostry, a Canadian veteran of international negotiations who's now a research fellow at the University of Toronto, surveyed this panorama in a recent speech and argued that a centerpiece of the next G8 meeting ought to be reform of the summit process itself. There's a good argument for keeping it an annual affair; scrapping the fixed schedule would add political costs to the act of convening a summit. And notwithstanding Mr. Chirac's anonymous aide, there's no substitute for personal contact.

But the need to search for secure locations, the lack of satisfactory engagement with opponents and the tension over U.S. unilateralism don't augur well. The G8 needs a tonic; a dose of reality might be a good start.

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