Power tripping at the top

Their dreadful imperative: ‘to understand where the devil the world is

Robert Lewis August 3 1981

Power tripping at the top

Their dreadful imperative: ‘to understand where the devil the world is

Robert Lewis August 3 1981

Power tripping at the top

Their dreadful imperative: ‘to understand where the devil the world is


Robert Lewis

They assembled in Ottawa, en route to a summit in seclusion down the river, with jet engines screaming and choppers filling the skies. They brought 800 advisers and attracted 1,900 media merchants, most of whom spent the two days confusing each other back in Ottawa. At the centre, there were just seven people,* hermetically sealed and pampered in a lodge of logs at Montebello, Que. They sat down to dinner, to get to know one another, as the symbols of industrial might and leaders of nations, with a total population of 593 million, that produce 80 per cent of the world’s gross national product. Yet after they had spent 15 hours together and more than $10 million, there was the humbling admission by their host and spokesman, Pierre Trudeau: “We are not that good at shaping our destinies.”

And how. Barely had the seven left town, professing faith in their future together, than their affairs took a spin toward economic hell in a shopping

*Number 7¡Á, with “quasi-delegate status was Gaston Thom, president of the 10-nation European Community.

cart. In Canada, not only had two national symbols been slaughtered for a beaver tail soup at the first supper, the dollar fell to its lowest level in 50 years, while interest rates soared to the highest ever (see page 35). In Britain inflation rose to 11.8 per cent. In Bonn Chancellor Helmut Schmidt was planning a belt-tightening budget. The signs from Washington pointed to another recession.

The most striking statistics, though, were not about countries, but leaders at the summit: their combined years on the planet (438) compared to the total of their years in power (only 2414). They met as politicians to the core, survivors from the long march through the political wilderness. They had scraped and schemed for years to attain their nation’s highest office, and this was the essential nature of the spirit at Montebello, not any great sense of unity for concerted action. Four of them—America’s Ronald Reagan, France’s François Mitterrand, Japan’s Zenko Suzuki and Italy’s Giovanni Spadolini—had come to power since the summit in Venice last summer. Only Schmidt of West Germany, pudgy now that he has given

up cigarettes for candy and snuff, has attended all the summits. Trudeau missed two: the first, in France, because Canada was not included and the fifth, in Japan, because Joe Clark was briefly prime minister. Margaret Thatcher, making her third appearance, has no reason for rejoicing, what with domestic problems in Britain. Little wonder, given global problems and personal storms, that the participants luxuriated in their host’s undemanding standard of success—that they simply agree to get along.

By all accounts they did just that— and more. Because of the restless media hands, the leaders also felt compelled to make much more of the final communiqué than it deserved. In doing so they concealed only the central fact that summits operate by unanimity—when a nation objects to a point, out it goes. No Bismarcks or Talleyrands need apply for the task, only the so-called “sherpas,” who do the real slogging for bosses in back rooms, and legions of publicity flacks who spread the gospel according to their leader. Accordingly, Reagan, the only leader to flit around in his very own helicopter—Marine I has instant communication with his War Room— took off amid boasts that his economic

policies had won the day (see box, page 14). Each of the others, however, was given some gruel to crow about—for Japan’s Suzuki, a commitment to free trade; for the Europeans, sweet words about countries taking account of others in their economic policymaking; for Schmidt, a watered-down reference to trade with the Soviets. Pierre Trudeau walked away with a victory of sorts on the North-South dialogue, even though the weasel phrases had mainly to do with the reluctance of the eagle for the chase (see page 17).

The consensus by committees barely concealed the fundamental splits in the way proud leaders look out on the world. The bonding, such as it could be gleaned from laundered accounts from inside, had more to do with shared experiences in and out of power—and the dreadful imperative of trying, as Trudeau had it, “to understand where the devil the world is going.”

By the by, harried heads of governments in trouble used Ottawa as a refuge from the tacky business of criticism in democracies. Back home in Italy, for example, Spadolini is known derisively as “this summer’s prime minister” and the Italian press gleefully dismissed the summiteers as “the Seven Dwarfs.” In the U.S., Reagan is under fire for his 9to-3 days and for his plan to spend most

of August out of telephone contact at his California ranch. In Japan, Suzuki is on a slide in the popularity polls—from 56 per cent at his best to a recent 35— and one major magazine has dubbed him “King Zenko the Ignorant.”

In their informal chats over drinks and during rounds of bilateral meetings, the leaders grasped at awkward historical references to establish some connections and to try to understand

their collective lot. Schmidt at one point suggested that at least the club could take solace from the fact that the situation is not as bad as it was during the 1930s. Italy’s Spadolini warmed to Reagan because the U.S. president reminded him of Nikita Khrushchev with his “farmer-like wisdom.” Spadolini further sought to forge a link by noting that both men lead Republican parties and, further, that 19th-century Italian

patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi had been a strong Republican and friend of Lincoln’s.

Mitterrand endeared himself to Reagan on the first night with his criticism of the Soviets and a pledge of loyalty to NATO. Obviously relieved on the first meeting with the dreaded Socialist, Reagan allowed that the French president “sounded like me or anyone else.” Reagan and Thatcher, of course, were already cheek-to-cheek on economic and defence policies and, in turn, they shared with Mitterrand the sense of arriving in power committed to fundamental change in the way their nations are governed from the centre.

As the much-praised host, Trudeau orchestrated the talks with touches that are familiar to Canadian observers. Apart from isolating the leaders from the press, he opened the Monday session by urging Thatcher to cancel a television interview, which she did. The PM also dispensed with protocol and met arriving leaders on the lawn in casual attire. By Monday night dinner, even Reagan and Suzuki had taken off their ties. Except for Trudeau’s dawn dip in the pool, however, none of the leaders went near the recreational facilities. Reagan did not ride horses, Suzuki did not play golf (although he boasts a 14 handicap). For a meeting a

few minutes away from the lodge, Schmidt and Reagan even rode in a golf cart, the president cheerfully at the wheel with Schmidt looking like he wanted to jump off. After dealing with affairs of state, there was no time for exercise.

Even the statesmen exhibited the problems of lesser mortals when the time came for small talk. When Reagan

working language. Over dinner the leaders noted that four—Trudeau, Thatcher, Mitterrand and Spadolini— also spoke French. When Spadolini lightheartedly suggested, “We’re in Quebec here,” Trudeau replied quickly, “We’re in Canada, in the province of Quebec.” Later, francophone reporters brought Trudeau back to domestic realities when they peppered him with questions about the apparent downgrading of the country’s other official language.

In contrast to past summits where leaders made commitments they didn’t keep, Trudeau this time ruled out any attempt, as he put it almost scathingly, “to quantify specific decisions of what the inflation rate should be, how many gallons of gasoline we should be saving, how much coal we should be developing and so on.” Instead, the leaders shoved the hot potatoes over to their ministers of finance and foreign affairs. It was there that the testy debates took place over interest rates, the Middle East and South Africa. Germany, the U.S., France and Canada reiterated their commitment, for example, to the liberation of Namibia (Southwest Africa) from control by South Africa. Other statements were similarly symbolic: the leaders deplored the escalation of “tension and continuing acts of violence” in

sat down in a parlor before breakfast with Suzuki, the U.S. president looked ill at ease and weary, while Suzuki struggled to keep the chitchat going through an interpreter. After several misfires Reagan announced, “Now, I think we’ll go to breakfast.” At another meal the leaders got into some lighthearted banter about whether to use English or French at the summit talks. Canadian officials explained before the summit began that since all but three leaders—Mitterrand, Suzuki and Spadolini—spoke English, it would be the

the Middle East, without pointing any fingers; and they threatened to cut off flights to Afghanistan because of the harboring of aircraft hijackers last March—although no airplanes from the summit nations fly into Kabul. The most substantial political message was on East-West relations, on which topic Reagan managed to have the summit spend the most amount of time. In the end, despite fudged wording, being tough with Moscow took prominence over arms-control talks.

The tortured prose of the communi-

qué was the result of a summit meeting that the press really should have covered, except that it was even more secret than sessions by leaders and ministers. While the politicians dined in three separate rooms Sunday night, the personal representatives—including Alan Gotlieb, under-secretary of state for External Affairs—started drafting the texts. They worked late into the night, resuming their niggling over lunch on Monday. After retreating to the cool of the basement when the airconditioning failed, the personal reps worked until midnight. By noon Tuesday the wording on North-South had been hammered out and approved by leaders, after concessions by the Americans. In return, the U.S. forced the Germans to drop a call for specific measures to stabilize interest rates. Just before the summit ended on Tuesday, with the leaders now ensconced in the East Block on Parliament Hill, further fixes were made. Britain’s Thatcher played an active role, at one point toning down the reference to the importance of market forces in the economy to appease Socialist Mitterrand, who is moving France toward more state control.

For leaders buffeted almost daily by forces beyond their control, Trudeau’s scenario was perfect. Grabbing and holding onto power is enough of a trial without the complications of glaring commitments that won’t stand the test of time. Japan’s Suzuki, the least known, was perhaps the best example of survival. “Zenko the Buddha,” as he is known to his friends, was first elected as a socialist opposition member of the Diet in 1947. The next year he narrowly escaped from an earthquake and tidal wave in his north coastal district. A few months later, Zenko-san switched to the governing party, won 14 successive campaigns and emerged, after holding

several cabinet posts, as the consensus choice for prime minister when the incumbent died last year. Like Reagan, Suzuki is a septuagenarian with faith in the future.

Reagan, like the others, didn’t leave everything to the gods. With doubts growing in the American press about his capacity for detail, presidential advisers ran a relentless snow job on the 550 accredited U.S. reporters and anyone else who cared to attend the two or three briefings per day. The American sources, including Secretary of State Alexander Haig, merrily provided quotes and anecdotes from inside to convey the sense that Reagan was the star. The indications from deep inside were otherwise. While Reagan got top marks for candor, his grasp of details was weaker than Schmidt, Mitterrand, Thatcher or Trudeau. The aura of the presidency, however, muted the tongues of those who really knew for sure.

The mysteries of power were most obvious among the lesser lights around the summit who struggled to gather at the feet of power. In Montebello the

local Liberal MP, Robert Gourd, was incessant in striding up the lawns with Trudeau and each arriving leader, while his hired photographer snapped precious shots for future campaigns. On the sprawling lawns of Government House, Conrad Black of Argus Corporation shuffled his feet almost imperceptibly until, face-to-face with Ronald Reagan, he told the president of his efforts as an early Reagan booster. Moments before, a beaming Jim Coutts, Trudeau’s former principal secretary and the Liberal candidate in next month’s Toronto byelection, angled his way into an introduction with Spadolini, whose coattails are believed to stretch into the Italian wards of Spadina riding in Toronto. Margaret Thatcher caught it best when she explained her own rise to power: “The great thing in life when an opportunity comes is to seize it because, if you don’t, it will never come again.” Res ipsa loquitur.

With files from Ian Anderson, John Hay, Susan Riley, Julie Van Husen and Les Whittington.