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Could Stephen Harper be right? Might this not be the twilight of the G8?

Much has been written about the fading relevance of the annual gathering of leaders of the large developed nations that concluded Saturday afternoon in Huntsville.

The G20 forum that succeeds it Saturday evening and Sunday represents the major countries in both the developed and developing world. It includes China, India and Brazil, the emerging economic giants of this century. It includes Muslim states, one African nation, and such regional powers as Turkey, Australia and Indonesia. It's relevant.

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But at his press conference Saturday, Mr. Harper said that G8 leaders unanimously agreed that their forum remained important. And he offered an intriguing reason for the unanimity that leaders achieved on issues ranging from food security to reining in North Korea: "The generational change that has taken place.

"I have never been at a summit where leaders seemed to more deeply feel the necessity of common action and common purpose," Mr. Harper added.

The leaders arrived later Saturday in Toronto for the larger meeting of the G20 Saturday evening and Sunday.

"The G20 has done a magnificent job so far in, really the year and half it has been around and has been tackling the economic crisis. But there are quite frankly limits to what you can discuss and what you can achieve in a group of 20, and of course there are always other participants as well. It leads to much less formal discussion than you are able to have a group like the G8."

I think all the leaders at this point would be pretty strong in their view, based on the discussion we had last night, that G8 is a pretty essential organization going forward. Prime Minister Harper

This is a young G8. America's Barack Obama and Britain's David Cameron are both in their forties, and it's easy to forget that Mr. Harper himself is only 51. Nicholas Sarkozy is a very youthful 55. Naoto Kan of Japan is in his 60s, but that's Japan's problem. Its political class is geriatric. Only Silvio Berlesconi of Italy is in his 70s, though he acts like he's 18.

Mr. Harper believes that a small, informal gathering of like-minded leaders can reach consensus in areas where the larger and more unwieldy G20 will remain divided.

It might be more accurate to say that it isn't the size of the G20 that's the problem; rather, it's the lack of consensus between developed and developing nations; between the Pacific and the Atlantic, between Islam and Christendom, between what some call the G2 -- China and the United States, the G that matters most.

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It is precisely that lack of consensus that makes the G20 so important. The hopes of the planet in this century hinge on bridging those differences. Ideological divides made the 20th century the bloodiest in history. Our very survival rests on not repeating that history.

The G20 is our best hope for prosperity and peace, the table at which all the major players, representing most of the world's population and the lion's share of the global economy meet to jaw, jaw, rather than war, war, as Churchill once put it.

The G8 must decline, as the West declines relative to the rest of the world over time. But it does so united in purpose.

"The G8 has been reshaped and re-energized," Mr. Harper maintained Saturday.

We can celebrate that, even as we wonder how much it really matters.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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