In The Media

A summit of all our fears

by Derek Burney and Fen Hampson

June 18, 2012

The purpose of summits, in the words of the distinguished former British diplomat Nicholas Bayne, is to “concentrate the mind,” “resolve differences” and have a “catalytic effect” on international cooperation.

Alas, the G20 Summit, which starts today in Los Cabos, Mexico, after Sunday’s Greek election cliffhanger, is likely to do little of that. Minds are concentrated, but world leaders are deeply polarized about how to tackle to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis. There is a clear sense of urgency, if not desperation. But like the Titanic, everyone is scrambling to get into the few life boats that are available to save their own skins. It’s not pretty. And, like the Titanic, the global economy is listing dangerously in the frigid waters of a second recession, rising unemployment, and the prospect of another global financial meltdown.

The G20 confers status to a select group without the need for commitment. Without collective will the annual sessions are devolving into little more than media spectacles, devoid of substance and purpose. Like Banquo’s unwelcome ghost, the “Greek problem” hovers over this summit gathering for yet a third time.

The sense of urgency and commitment to concerted action, which characterized those early meetings of leaders, to deal with the fallout of the 2008-09 financial crisis at meetings in Washington, London, and Pittsburgh has long since dissipated.

Summits can be catalysts for action, but not a place to make new rules. They are talkfests, yes. But through discussion and personal interactions leaders can strengthen the incentives and the will for cooperation and mutual understanding.

Summits also provide a critical opportunity for leaders to use their political position and influence to break deadlocks and logjams at the bureaucratic and international institutional levels.

When used properly, summits can create policy cohesion and a unity of purpose, especially among the major players.

However, acute differences among G20 members are fast overwhelming the shrinking sum of its parts. For obvious reasons, neither the U.S. nor the Europeans are in a position to offer confident macro-economic direction or leadership. Europeans continue to dither about plans to rescue the Eurozone. Many are simply not prepared to make the kinds of concessions to Germany on fiscal reform that would accompany a move to a banking union and a proper bailout fund to help those who can’t meet their obligations. Instead, they want a reprieve on their debts while they continue to spend. They also don’t want to relinquish their sovereignty for the sake greater monetary and fiscal union because then their hands will really be tied. It is a matter of wanting to have your cake and eat it too.

For the Americans, all that counts now is the November election. There are virtually no other priorities for the Obama Administration. Their reluctance to tackle fiscal reform at home leaves little scope for influence at Summits.

As Washington pundit Ian Bremmer wryly noted recently, “It’s not a matter of “capability. Bobby Fisher was the best chess players in the world. Then he stopped competing. It wasn’t a question of whether he could wind. He chose not play.” The US doesn’t want to play the world’s “policeman” or be the “lender of last resort” anymore. Americans have simply grown tired of leading. Behind Obama’s grin is grim ennui.

China has the financial capacity for influence, but is singularly unwilling to step up in a more responsible manner.

The G20 is an unwieldy group even if the intentions were noble. Given its increasingly protectionist and confiscatory stance on trade and investment, Argentina has no credibility as a participant. Just as Russia is diluting meaningful consensus at the G8 and the U.N. Security Council on political issues, namely Syria, the lumpy group assembling in Mexico represent highly differentiated styles of government and is unlikely to muster confidence or cohesion at a time when both are sorely needed by the global economy.

Prime Minister Harper knows that if the Americans won’t or cannot lead, we would be foolish to walk the Euro-plank alone by putting our own good money on the line, at least not until there is more sign of resolve among the Europeans themselves.

Just south Los Cabos on the Baja California peninsula where the G20 summit is meeting is Land’s End, a rock that juts over the water. This promontory marks the end of Baja, California. Let’s hope this meeting of the G20 doesn’t mark the beginning of the end of the Eurozone as well.

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