This weekend will provide a defining moment for the developing countries of the G20, which have elbowed their way into the clubby confines of the G8 and are now poised to tilt the world's balance of power. It will also be a defining moment for Stephen Harper, the man who, in many ways, has placed himself at the centre of this transition.
When Mr. Harper first came to power, he was viewed as a parochial leader with little interest in foreign affairs. But over the past year he has engineered a significant shift in Canada's foreign policy, evolving from a reluctant statesman to an adept manipulator of foreign policy. In the process, he is expanding beyond the country's long-standing allegiance to the Euro-American alliance and toward a firmer embrace of China and India.
The fruits of that effort were evident on Thursday, when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in Ottawa for a state visit, armed with the promise of a new beginning for the Sino-Canadian relationship. The two leaders pledged to take steps to substantially expand trade volume, and Mr. Harper acknowledged they have "have yet to realize the potential of our relationship."
Indeed, this weekend's gathering of world leaders is the culmination of a behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign Mr. Harper began last fall. Sources said the Prime Minister was concerned that Friday's G8 meeting would be diminished without the presence of the G20, which is rapidly emerging as the premier forum for global diplomacy.
Weeks before the world's leaders convened for a meeting in Pittsburgh in September, Mr. Harper began agitating for a G20 meeting in Canada. South Korea, which is chairing the G20 this year and hosting a summit this November, was less than impressed, according to people familiar with the matter. Yet Mr. Harper pressed on, eventually convincing his peers in Pittsburgh that a second G20 summit was warranted.
Now, as host of these two gatherings, he has the opportunity to build a bridge between the old order and the new, and in the process, to help define how the G8 and the more expansive G20 will carve out their respective roles.
So far, Mr. Harper has notched a pair of significant victories. He has persuaded his G8 peers to embrace his initiative on maternal health - with no divisive mentions of abortion - and roped many of the major emerging economies of the G20 into opposing the European proposal for a bank tax. Indeed, Canada has been a major player in shaping the G20's agenda, which seeks to reform financial institutions and rein in swelling sovereign debt, without pushing economies back into recession.
"We're punching above our weight, saying very sensible things about what is needed, on the basis of our own performance," maintains Derek Burney, who has served many public roles, from Canadian ambassador to the United States to head of the transition team when the Conservatives took power in 2006.
This global activism is a far cry from the naive and counterproductive ideology that dominated the first iteration of the Conservatives' foreign policy. Mr. Harper came to power in 2006 with a playbook straight out of the old Reform Party manifesto.
Canada would keep its distance from China, because the Conservatives distrusted its authoritarian government. Canada would back Israel to the hilt in the Middle East, and seek to strengthen relations with the U.S. It would offer a full-throated commitment to fighting the war in Afghanistan. Aid would shift away from Africa and toward the Americas, where Canada had more pressing interests.
"The rhetoric of a principled values-based foreign policy … was disastrous," says Paul Evans, a political scientist at University of British Columbia who specializes in China-Canada relations, "because it defined our interests too narrowly."
It also reflected Mr. Harper's lack of knowledge or interest in foreign affairs, and the fragility of his first minority government.
"I don't think foreign policy loomed large on the agenda, for a government that probably saw six months to a year as its tenure," observes Mr. Burney. "He had a short-term gauge, because of the political situation."
But the government did last, and won a second election in 2008, even as the economic crisis upended many of the Conservatives' foreign policy assumptions. And the education of Stephen Harper in the way of the world led to one policy reversal after another.
A government once determined to shift aid priorities from Africa to the Americas is now sponsoring an Africa-centric maternal health initiative; a government that was once suspicious of the United Nations is now angling - apparently with some success - to procure one of the rotating seats on the Security Council; a government set on renewing and strengthening ties with the United States now focuses on forging and strengthening links with Asia.
"The desire to act according to certain principles has come face to face with reality," says Jennifer Welsh, who specializes in international relations and teaches at Oxford University. "If that is how we define maturing, then they have matured."
Colin Bradford, an American political scientist who is also a scholar at the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation, said Mr. Harper grasps that the world has changed profoundly since the shocks of 2008, that the West is in relative decline and Asia is on the rise, and that Canada must accommodate its foreign policy to this reality. Yet at the same time, Mr. Bradford notes, Canada is a country conditioned by the certainties of the Bretton Woods agreement that established the post-Second-World War order - a world dominated by the United States, and buttressed by Europe, Japan and the other nations of the West.
The challenge for Mr. Harper will lie in navigating this transition, and exploiting his hard-won geopolitical capital to accelerate Canada's shift from its Atlantic past to its Pacific future.
The irony is that a Prime Minister who was more interested in keeping his minority government afloat is now defined as much by foreign-policy successes as by domestic challenges. That may be the most important evolution of all.
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