Professor Hugo Dobson recently returned from a week in Toronto researching the G8 and G20 summits from the International Media Centre. Below he shares a few observations from the summit.
First of all, from the perspective of the presidents, prime ministers and chancellors attending, this was a diplomatic debut for several of them, most notably the prime ministers of Japan, Kan Naoto, and the UK, David Cameron. For these leaders it was an opportunity to become accustomed to the style of summitry and also meet their counterparts officially, in particular President Obama, for the first time. As regards the G8, the centrepiece was the announcement of the Muskoka Initiative that provides billions of dollars to combat maternal, infant and child mortality in pursuit of the UN's Millennium Developments Goals. However, there was criticism of how much of this money was 'new' and had not already been promised under other initiatives, in addition to misgivings that the pledges made five years ago at Gleneagles to provide assistance to Africa with a deadline of 2010 were nowhere to be seen in the final statement coming out of Muskoka. As regards the G20, the focus was placed upon the state of the global economy with the goal of building a consensus between the European emphasis on austerity measures and the US support for continued stimulus.
Japan's response was to engage in these debates, in the case of the G20 proposing that fiscal discipline and growth can co-exist, whilst pursuing other initiatives such as ensuring the G8 made a strong statement condemning North Korea and its recent sinking of a South Korean warship. In addition to this, Japan was keen to ensure the existence of the G8. Japan has traditionally cherished its role in the G8 as the only Asian country and the status accorded it as part of this global elite. Thus, it was concerned when many summit-watchers and fellow leaders recently predicted the demise of the G8 and its replacement by the larger G20 with its wider representation and perceived legitimacy. In reaction, Japan has sought to promote the benefits and effectiveness of a smaller grouping of like-minded leaders as opposed to a larger grouping with little ideological glue uniting them. After the Toronto summits, the first time for the G8 and G20 to be hosted together, it appears that the leaders have come round to Japan's way of thinking by recognising the utility of the G8 and its future appears to be have been secured, at least for the time being.Second, the response of the world's media to these summit meetings is sadly predictable. The focus is either placed upon the perceived failure of the leaders to provide a silver bullet that solves all the world's problems, or the peripheral aspects of summitry like what the leaders ate at dinner or what their wives wore and said to each other. The predictability of this reporting is such that the headlines for next year's summit could be regurgitated from this year. In other words, as usual the world's media failed to understand the nature of the summit process as an incremental, informal, consensus-building mechanism amongst like-minded leaders that is designed to provide medium to long-term results rather than a quick fix. Instead, the media filled their column inches by focusing on events taking place on the edges of the summit.
Third, civil society has played an increasingly high-profile role at the G8 summits over the decades and has begun to focus on the G20 more recently. As a result of this, their presence around the summit has become a regular feature and summit hosts have gone to considerable lengths to accommodate them and support their activities. However, at this summit many leading non-governmental organisations found themselves housed in an 'alternative' media centre separated from the 'real' media centre. Journalists were allowed to enter freely this 'alternative' media centre but civil society representatives had limited access to the world's media across the road and as a result their voice was muted compared with other summits. As regards the 'uncivil' elements of civil society, the weekend over which the summit took place will remembered by many Canadians for the protests and riots that closed down central Toronto and grabbed most of the headlines during and after the summits.
Last but not least, the people of Toronto were both in turn overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the summit. Overwhelmed in terms of the rioting mentioned above and the cost of cleaning up the damage incurred; underwhelmed in terms of what the summit delivered and at what price. For the average Torontonian I spoke to, the summit was a slightly distant and mysterious affair that came with a price tag of over one billion dollars. Although summits are inevitably expensive to host, especially in terms of providing security for the world's leaders, and are likely to continue to be held in or around urban centres, greater efforts could be made by the host nation to redirect or supplement the media's focus in order to explain the benefits of this form of global governance.