The Camp David Group of Eight (G8) Summit was oddly clarifying. With Europe riven with divisions over the euro and the sclerosis of welfare states in aging societies, the United States wrapped up in increasingly parochial domestic politics, Japan adrift and Russia backsliding into authoritarianism, Canada stood alone as a country with healthy economic prospects and a stable government.
If Prime Minister Stephen Harper was interested in providing leadership in the G8, it is not clear that anyone was prepared to follow. Despite his sensible fiscal and monetary policies, commitment to free trade, and Canada's prudent development of commodities, few abroad find Canada's approach replicable at home. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty similarly can suggest sensible adjustments to International Monetary Fund (IMF) governance to avoid foreseeable trouble ahead, to no avail.
A month from now, the Group of Twenty (G20) meets in Los Cabos, Mexico reuniting the Camp David Eight and adding leaders of major developing countries. The preoccupation with domestic crises will prevent any meaningful progress at this summit, too. Once again, Harper will find few takers for the proffer of Canadian wisdom.
Beyond the photo-ops, and providing the opportunity for more feckless protests by the lumpen protestariat, what do these summits accomplish?
The idea behind these gatherings was to foster coordination of macroeconomic policies among the world's major economies. But coordination doesn't just happen. The key ingredient is leadership. You would think that a gathering of leaders would be a good place to find some leadership, but it isn't that easy.
Leadership has to come from the major powers. Middle powers like Canada can try to mediate conflicts among major powers, or promote consensus within groups of countries. And among the major powers, the European Union has yet to be able to provide this kind of leadership when it competes for a voice with its leading member states at global summits. China is respected but not fully trusted, admired but rarely followed in global forums.
Which brings us back to the United States, which isn't providing much leadership these days: the constant fundraising and media mudslinging of the 2012 election preoccupies Barack Obama and congressional leaders these days, and Washington appears to want to retreat from international problems -- from Afghanistan and Iraq, from the Syrian massacres, and no less from the economic crises in Europe.
Ian Bremmer, founder of the Eurasia Group, sees the decline of the United States and the inability of alternative global leadership marching us inexorably toward a "G-Zero" world. It is an anarchic place, but one which Bremmer thinks will provide opportunities for middle powers like Canada. Without abandoning old friends like the United States in senescence, Canada can create new and fluid networks of "friends." International alliances are transformed into Facebook "friendships" and world order emerges in a patter of "likes" and twittering followers.
Perhaps. Yet few Canadians should wish for this world. Middle powers, like the middle class at home, thrive when hard work is rewarded and everyone follows set rules. For most of the past century, the United States has backed a rules-based world order that has helped the global economy to grow. Bremmer is right that alternative global leadership is not ready to fill the vacuum left when the United States does not provide it.
Let us hope that the United States comes to its senses quickly, and provides credible leadership in all the Gs Canada has joined.
Follow Christopher Sands on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sandsathudson