11/03/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/02/2015 05:59 EST

Stephen Harper's APEC Absence Begs Question: Do Summits Matter?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will skip the leaders' meetings at the upcoming APEC summit, choosing instead to attend Remembrance Day events in Ottawa. In the wake of the killing of two Canadian Armed Forces members on home soil, it's undoubtedly the right decision.

But don't weep for APEC, whose 20-odd years of existence hasn't exactly altered the course of history. What of the vaunted Bogor Goals, you might ask? OK, you've never heard of them. QED.

This isn't to say that the Asia-Pacific region is not important. It is. But it's safe to say that Canada won't lose out by skipping this particular summit, at this particular time, for this particular reason.

But it prompts the question: how useful are summits?

Summits certainly have the veneer of importance. They are held in sumptuous settings, feature elaborate cultural components, and have hundreds of reporters from around the world covering them. Besides, why would so many leaders gather if they didn't have something useful to talk about?

The truth is, most summits decide very little, with the major issues having been resolved ahead of time by people with unusual titles like "sherpa." Of course, the threat of leaders meeting is often what drives the bureaucracy to agreement, but summits like the Commonwealth, APEC and La Francophonie could disappear tomorrow and the world would be no worse off.

So, why keep having summits? It's partially inertia. Like any piece of bureaucratic machinery, summits, once established, become self-justifying; we met last year, so we should meet again this year. Getting rid of them would be more trouble than it's worth.

Keep it tight

A general rule of thumb for any meeting is the more attendees there are, the less useful the meeting will be. And so it is with summits.

The G8 features seven like-minded countries — plus Russia — discussing important issues that affect each nation equally. Every country has some skin in the game over what's being discussed, which is typically global security or the global economy. It is also the one summit meeting where it is just the leaders and a staff member or minister with them in the room. The format engenders frank, and useful, discussion.

Contrast this to a Commonwealth, or La Francophonie, where countries that are anything but like-minded discuss issues that are of limited global importance. What does preserving the French language or the British monarchy matter to global powerhouses and decision-makers like China or the United States?

The moment I began to question the value of summits was when Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner delivered a 20-minute diatribe on anarcho-capitalism during the Cannes G20 in November 2011. Greece was in meltdown, the Eurozone was on the precipice, and de Kirchner used her intervention to instead brag about the lack of foreign investment in her country. Thankfully markets weren't a fly on the wall or trillions more dollars would have been wiped out in an instant.

And that was one of the more productive summits.

No meeting for meeting's sake

So, what can be done to make summits more relevant? Here's one obvious answer: talk about issues that matter.

Part of the reason for APEC's slide to irrelevance is that the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is centred on trade and the economy, both issues of enormous importance, has usurped it. Had APEC picked up the trade baton in a meaningful way, it might still be a contender. And while it's true that China sits outside the TPP, most countries have a strong bilateral engagement with China outside of summitry.

Of course, there won't always be important issues to discuss. In that sense, summits are hostages to events. The best summits are always when the right countries are around the right table, at the right time, to discuss pressing issues. If there isn't a reason to meet then who's to say a summit group can't meet at the leader level only when required, and not every year?

Limiting leader attendance in this way would prevent summit fatigue while bureaucrats or ministers work to keep files ticking over. If an issue requiring global leadership were to emerge, leaders will make the time to meet, as they did via the G20 in 2008 and 2009 as the wheels came off the global economy.

Speaking of the G20, it is the one summit that needs to reassert its importance, a point the prime minister will surely be making at this year's meeting in Australia. It must, as the global economy is once again in danger of recession as the Eurozone wobbles, China stumbles, and the once-darling BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are hit with economic brickbats.

Without the coordinated response of the G20 in 2008 and 2009, the global economy would have fared much worse. Unfortunately, as the crisis de-escalated the G20 lost its economic focus, adding peripheral development and environmental components to its agenda. It's time for the G20 to rediscover its focus and raison d'être.

Last year's G20 in St. Petersburg barely mentioned the economy, thanks to Syria.

This year's meeting in Australia should be different, as long as no one gives the floor to Argentina.

Andrew MacDougall is a former director of communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He is now the senior executive consultant at MSLGROUP London. Follow him @agmacdougall.

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