The Room Where it Happens: A Policy Q&A with Veteran G7 Sherpa Sen. Peter Boehm

Peter Boehm (above left) and the G7 principals facing off with a truculent Donald Trump, June 9, 2018, Charlevoix, Quebec/Adam Scotti photo


As the world recovers from the health, economic and broader societal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, G7 leaders will be gathering in Cornwall, UK, June 11-13. During his career as a senior diplomat, Senator Peter Boehm, who now chairs the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, served as Canada’s Sherpa for six G7s, including the G7 Charlevoix in 2018. Policy Associate Editor Lisa Van Dusen conducted a Q&A with Senator Boehm by email ahead of the Cornwall G7.


Lisa Van Dusen: There’s a lot going on with this G7 — the “build back better” economic response to the pandemic, tackling climate change, among other issues — enormous problems both unprecedented and chronic. What’s your sense of the policy agenda, and Canada’s stake at the table?

Senator Peter Boehm: Dealing with the global health impact as well as the social and economic repercussions of a pandemic of epic proportions will of course be front and centre in the leaders’ discussion. During its year long G7 presidency, the United Kingdom has set out an impressive schedule of ministerial and related meetings, all of which have resulted in initiatives that leaders will consider. Health ministers have addressed means to strengthen the World Health Organization (WHO), ensuring greater preparedness and better coordination for the arrival of new COVID variants and other as yet unknown viruses.  Finance Ministers have made determinations for the building back of the global economy, including greater engagement by the International Monetary Fund as well as an historic tax on multinational corporations to reduce base erosion and profit shifting. Foreign ministers and international development ministers have met to bolster equitable vaccine access through the global COVAX facility and other mechanisms, with foreign ministers also touching on the world’s geostrategic hotspots and cyberterrorism.  At their meeting, climate and environment ministers tackled climate change, biodiversity loss, and the challenge of supporting the transition to a “net zero” economy.  And, of course, the UK will host the Conference of Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP26) later in the year in Glasgow. This is just a tasting menu for a very varied leaders’ agenda, barring any last minute surprise issues (Belarus, anyone?) that could insert themselves into their dialogue.

As is always the case, Canada has a great stake and a role in shaping these discussions. Prime Minister Trudeau goes into the summit second in seniority to Angela Merkel and his experience will certainly be called upon in shaping some of the discussions. For Canada, the G7 is the jewel in the crown of its foreign policy, in that being at the table, contributing constructively (including through financial commitments), working towards consensus and good outcomes is one of our recognized global vocations, regardless of who is prime minister.  I can assert that I learned much at the side of both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau: two very different individuals, but both persuasive in setting out strong Canadian positions and forging consensus.

LVD: Beyond the public policy agenda, there’s the political context this year, notably that a major organizational irritant has been replaced by Joe Biden, whose foreign policy experience and general approach to summitry make him a far more conventional interlocutor. Do you think this year represents a return to normalcy?

SPB: The Carbis Bay Summit will be the first in-person meeting of G7 leaders since the French Summit in Biarritz in August 2019 and that in itself will be an achievement. This meeting will be unique for a number of reasons: the arrival of Joe Biden as US President, as well as the participation at the summit of new leaders from Italy, Japan and the European Union; and the fact that it will be chaired by Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of a United Kingdom no longer formally tied to the EU. It will also be the last one for Angela Merkel, a legend in many respects, and someone who has been particularly effective at brokering solutions at these events. In process terms, the ministerial meetings have produced initiatives and communiqués that will inform the leaders’ agenda and also result in a leaders’ communiqué, for the first time since the Charlevoix Summit in 2018. As at other G7 summits, including our own, the host has invited additional leaders to part of the proceedings, in this case Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa. The combination of the pandemic, the American electoral cycle and the lack of G7 focus in the Trump White House all served to scupper the US G7 presidency last year, with no summit taking place.

American unease with the referencing ‘the rules-based international order’ in the leaders’ communiqué became the crux of my debate with John Bolton in ‘the room where it happened’ at Charlevoix, in front of a rather bemused President Trump and the other leaders.

So even if the times and challenges appear to be unprecedented, the G7 is back on track in process terms and also on the substantive side. Biden is the antithesis to Trump: experienced, comfortable with the process, respectful of other participants and not self-obsessed. He also immerses himself in the policy aspects of the files under discussion. In contrast to others around the table, Trump never did, preferring to “wing it”.  Part of the challenge during Canada’s last presidency in 2018 was our inability to receive clear signals from the Trump administration’s negotiating team on many issues, with the exception of the Paris Climate Change Agreement (bad), the JCPOA deal with Iran (very bad) and tariffs (we are coming for all of you). American unease with the referencing “the rules-based international order” in the leaders’ communiqué became the crux of my debate with John Bolton in “the room where it happened” at Charlevoix, in front of a rather bemused President Trump and the other leaders. At the risk of using a foreign policy cliché, there will be greater likemindedness and common resolve at the leaders’ table at Carbis Bay. If there ever was a time for that, it is now. I appreciate the fact that the British team came to us seeking our know-how for the planning of their summit. In addition to looking at our staging of the event and negotiating approaches, this also included maintaining the consultative process with civil society engagement groups: the Business 7, the Womens’ 7, the Labour 7, the Youth 7, the Science 7 and so on as well as the Gender Equality Advisory Council that we initiated in 2018.

LVD: Part of that change in US leadership is a shift in focus from the economic thrust of the G7 (I’m old enough to remember when G7s were called “economic summits”) to what Secretary of State Antony Blinken called “defending democratic values and open societies” at the London G7 foreign ministers meeting. What’s your sense of that as a response to the anti-democracy challenge presented by China and Russia, and how does it change or refine Canada’s role in the G7? 

SPB: In my experience, the economic portion of the summit was always the key element, declining somewhat with the advent of the G20, where economic issues are paramount and central bankers together with finance ministers participate alongside their leaders. However, in the last major economic downturn in 2008, G7 discussions were a significant preqrequisite and bridge for G20 determinations. This year, the global health security and economic crisis provoked by the pandemic will not just feature at the G7 summit but at the G20 summit in Italy later in the year. Having participated in the Carbis Bay summit, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi (whom I knew when he led the European Central Bank in Frankfurt and when I was our ambassador in Berlin), will, fortuitously, be holding the reins at the latter meeting in October.

The wide-ranging and profound reflection among leaders on China that I witnessed at the Ise Shima summit in Japan in 2016, led by Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama, ranks as the most fascinating of my previous career.

All excellent news in terms of continuity and process, especially since the pandemic will still be with us in one form or another. The discussion on democratic values and open societies has been a theme at the six summits I attended as Sherpa, facilitated by the expulsion of the Russian Federation from the group in 2013 over Russia’s seizure of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine as well as China’s increasing geostrategic assertiveness. The wide-ranging and profound reflection among leaders on China that I witnessed at the Ise Shima summit in Japan in 2016, led by Shinzo Abe and Barack Obama, ranks as the most fascinating of my previous career. Cybersecurity, ransomeware attacks, deliberate disinformation on social media from state and non-state actors, warped electoral systems and general public ennui have added other dimensions to the strengthening democracy challenge. Given its internal debate on its own democracy, the US can no longer be the advocate of the “you should be like us” position; rather, as Secretary of State Blinken and the other G7 foreign ministers have emphasized in their London communique, there will be a greater commitment to collective action to reinforce inclusive democratic institutions, safe civic spaces, media freedom and the democratic threat Rapid Response Mechanism (our initiative from Charlevoix). The declaration on state arbitrary detention, designed and promoted by Canada, has also been reinforced. Planning continues for a meeting of democracies in the US later in the year; a Biden campaign pledge. To use a sports analogy, as he embarks for Europe, Biden has the bases loaded in terms of the sequencing of his meetings: G7 Summit, NATO Summit, EU/US Summit and finishing with a summit in Geneva with Vladimir Putin. Can he hit it out of the park?  Biden wants to emphasize a team approach. There are opportunities here for Canada, given our symbiotic relationship with the US, our own woes with China in particular and our good standing in global institutions. But with elections coming in Germany and France and likely in our own country, allies’ attention span may become narrower as perceived US indispensability on the global stage becomes greater.

Nonetheless, the greatest way to demonstrate resolve and commitment for democracy is for the G7 leaders to take determined steps at Carbis Bay to rid the world of the pandemic, shore up the global economy, support developing countries and forge a path to new solutions.  And this commitment has to result in determined, sustained and visible action. This will not be an easy task, but it will underscore why the G7 matters.

Senator Peter Boehm, a regular contributor to Policy magazine, is a former senior diplomat and current chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade. He served as Canada’s Sherpa for six G7 summits. 

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor and deputy publisher of Policy Magazine. She was Washington columnist for the Ottawa Citizen and Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP National in New York and UPI in Washington.