Harper returns to St. Petersburg older but is he wiser?

Harper in the back of the plane
Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to reporters on his plane en route to the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia (DAVID AKIN)

Stephen Harper had hardly every stepped outside of his native Canada when, in the first few months as Canada’s prime minister, he found himself flying to St. Petersburg for his first G8 summit.  This week, Harper will return to St. Petersburg for the annual summit of G20 leaders.

I was among the reporters covering his 2006 trip and I will be among the press pack covering this 2013 G20 summit.

I snapped the picture at the top of  this post on our way, in 2006, to St. Petersburg in the same plane which will take us there this week. This picture records the one and only time in my experience that I can recall Harper coming to the back of the plane where reporters sit and speaking to us on the record. (He has done this on election campaigns but never, so far as I know, in non-election situations. What did he tell us in this exchange? Well, the Israel-Lebanon war had just exploded and when we asked him about it, he said, “Israel’s response under the circumstances has been measured.” Two days later, that “measured response” would result in the death of eight Canadians, four of them children.

We have never only once seen Harper at the back of the plane since.

Thanks to Jacques for this update. I did not attend that particular APEC.

When we arrived in St. Petersburg in 2006, I was shocked at how “green” and uncomfortable Harper looked among world leaders like Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac and George W. Bush. While other leaders — including host Vladimir Putin — spoke often and at length to the world’s press, Canada’s PM holed up in his chalet and hardly said a word. He seemed physically smaller than he had as the confident leader of the party that had just knocked off the Liberal “juggernaut” of Paul Martin.

Now though, Harper has lots of of experience on the international stage and his confidence in international fora matches the confident tone Canadians see from him at home . His international experience plus the combination of Canada’s military accomplishments in Afghanistan and Libya combined with the ability of the Canadian economy to come roaring out the recession in the best shape of any G8 country gives the Canadian some cards to play at international summits that Harper did not have when he was first in St. Petersburg. Many in Canada will disagree with Harper’s policy objectives at these summits but there is no getting around the fact that while Harper and Canada were essentially invisible in 2006 at that G8 summit, Canada, for better or worse, is likely to have significant “middle power” influence this week in St. Petersburg. In other words, Canada makes a difference at these summits. And yet — Harper remains almost as invisible to the world’s press this week as he did in 2006.

St Petersburg G8

Harper will arrive Thursday  in St. Petersburg second in seniority among G8 leaders only to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, another small-c conservative politician with whom Harper has found a natural ally for the agenda — free trade and austerity, mostly — that he has pushed at international fora.

I will be interested in seeing what I can learn about the Merkel-Harper relationship at this G20 for she is facing an election this fall and some European commentators believe she is softening a bit on what had been her strong “austerity” message of the last few years. Will Merkel get Harper to soften a bit on his austerity stance or will Harper help give Merkel a little “spine” to stick with the austerity message?


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