Stephen Harper is perfectly positioned to direct traffic at an historical intersection.
As the host of next year’s G8 summit, the prime minister can set the speed for G20 countries as they travel from their meeting in Pittsburgh this week towards their final destination of a place among elite nations guiding the planet’s course.
How Harper manages that transition is every bit as crucial for Canada as it is for rising world economies.
Even if the suspect Conservative claim that Canada is back on the global stage is accepted at face value, staying in the footlights, or on the marquee, is far from certain.
Measured by the size of its economy, population or diplomatic clout, Canada is on the long end of the short list of top 20 nations.
Holding a place held for more than half a century now requires proof that the land of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney remains quick to respond to change and still punches above its international weight.
Harper’s opportunity is to shape what’s inevitable to national advantage.
Two presidents, one in Washington and the one in Paris who will chair the G8 in 2011, are strongly signalling that the status quo won’t survive much longer. Institutions of the Second World War and Cold War vintage are showing their age and urgently need reformation or replacement to manage the borderless sweep of financial, climate and security threats.
So the prime minister must now choose between effecting change and letting Canada be affected by change.
He can help accelerate the G8 into the G-Something or try to slow that transition in the hope the Huntsville summit won’t be too obviously diminished by, say, Barack Obama staying home or just growing irrelevance.
It should be an easy choice. By seizing the moment to reinforce this country’s multilateral credentials, Harper improves Canada’s prospects of securing a future seat at the expanded table.
Instead of being dismissed as the last in a tired series, the Muskoka meeting might just be celebrated as the energetic first of a new sequence.
Foot-dragging is not an appealing option. Canada’s strongest case for continued inclusion is the stability of its banking sector. That will fade as the memory of financial chaos recedes and there isn’t enough in this country’s global governance portfolio to fill the void.
Canada isn’t in the environment vanguard.
Conservatives continue to sacrifice much of the country’s international honest-broker reputation to domestic political hegemony.
Afghanistan would speak more loudly to the security commitment if the mission were more popular in Europe and Asia and not spiralling towards failure.
Balancing those negatives are the positives Ottawa still offers. Led by Paul Martin, Canada was the G20 catalyst and can now add to that history by volunteering to provide the secretariat the bigger club will need. Just as practically, it can back an idea now gaining broad acceptance by taking responsibility for the safe mine-to-dump control of uranium worldwide.
Luring, too, for Harper is the political bonus. Opening the door to China, India and others holds partisan promise for a ruling party so actively wooing immigrant voters.
The G8 is at a turning point. With Harper’s direction it can be tilted benignly to include Canada. Left to Obama, who’s losing G8 patience, or Nicolas Sarkozy, who has his own membership plans, Canada could be out in the cold.
As the designated traffic cop, the prime minister now must direct the flow or risk being run over.
Jim Travers writes for The Toronto Star Syndicate.