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Clyde Sanger

Harper could learn from the Commonwealth small fry Add to ...

In prescribing (and describing) a series of books for Stephen Harper to read, has Canadian bestselling author Yann Martel listed Gulliver's Travels? It's a good choice for the Prime Minister as he heads to Trinidad and Tobago for what may be a surprising summit of Commonwealth leaders this weekend.

Mr. Harper may feel like Jonathan Swift's hero as he lands on a small island. After all, he comes from a vast country and has on his current visiting list two other giants, India and China. Many leaders among the 53 states of the Commonwealth run tiny fiefs, like the island of Lilliput, and Mr. Harper could imagine that he is swimming among small fry for three days.

But he should glance at the profiles of these heads of government that the Commonwealth Secretariat folk have put in his folder. A remarkable number are former professors (in Gambia and Ghana, for example), several more have been ministers of finance, investment bankers or reserve-bank governors, while two others (in Singapore and Botswana) grew up at the knee of outstanding presidents.

Lots of brains and experience around that table. And, as with Gulliver, these leaders are quite likely to tie Mr. Harper in knots. Furthermore, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is a much more intimate gathering than anything the United Nations can offer. Those two from Singapore and Botswana, Lee Hsien Loong and Ian Khama, both trained as soldiers (the latter at Sandhurst) and may even offer sympathetic advice in private on Afghanistan.

But what will be the big subjects in all the talk from Friday to Sunday? These summits, taking place at two-year intervals, often begin with crisis talk and speculation that the association will break up. This time, it is because the chairman, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, is planning punitive legislation against gays. The same talk preceded the Lusaka summit in 1979, with Britain's new prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, wanting to endorse a creaky coalition in Rhodesia. Two smart leaders from small states, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Michael Manley of Jamaica, talked her into a U-turn. This time, any talking-to of Mr. Museveni will be in private.

Climate change is on all minds. Drought and tsunamis have sent warnings. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has aligned himself with the European Union in a pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent from 1990 levels by the year 2020. British PM Gordon Brown will support him. And no doubt Mr. Harper will hear the young President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives repeat his recent prediction at the UN that his island chain will vanish under rising waters.

And there is India on centre stage. This will be the first CHOGM for Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma, former high commissioner for India in London, a symbol that, after being indifferent to this sometimes puzzling but flexible association for 60 years, India is taking its uses seriously.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a former economics professor, reserve-bank governor and much more, is becoming the most influential player of them all. He has just come from a state visit to the United States - and hosting Mr. Harper at home - and his country is taking the lead in the crucial sector of youth unemployment.

So, one hopes that Mr. Harper is there with an open mind and stays the full time - in 2007, he dropped in for a single day on the CHOGM in Uganda.

He is the leader of a country much respected in the Commonwealth since the days of the first secretary-general, Arnold Smith. Pierre Trudeau, who at his first Commonwealth conference in 1969 was skeptical to the point of executing a playful pirouette behind the back of the Queen, soon learned that the group had substance and hosted a constructive summit in 1973.

Who knows? Maybe Mr. Harper will have an epiphany, after a quiet conversation with Mr. Rudd of Australia and Mr. Nasheed of the Maldives, and come up with a more positive pledge for the climate-change talks in Copenhagen. Stranger things have happened.

Clyde Sanger is the co-author, with former Commonwealth secretary-general Arnold Smith, of Stitches in Time: The Commonwealth in World Politics. He was director of information at the Commonwealth Secretariat, 1977-1979.

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