Is the G20’s debut also the beginning of its farewell tour?

At least there is no disputing that we should all find unsettling the World Bank report indicating that 17 members of the G20 have already broken November promises to quash protectionism. Right now everything is worrying. This is the moment my neuroses have been training me for all my life. The question is what does ...

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587639_090318_85423414_rez2.jpg
on March 14, 2009 in Horsham, England. Finance Ministers from the G20 group of wealthy and emerging countries are meeting for a second day.

At least there is no disputing that we should all find unsettling the World Bank report indicating that 17 members of the G20 have already broken November promises to quash protectionism. Right now everything is worrying. This is the moment my neuroses have been training me for all my life.

The question is what does the World Bank report signify? According the Bank, the report reveals a "worrying" drift toward protectionism. But to me, the report reveals an equally worrying drift toward rampant bullshit. Not that bullshit is anything new in international relations. It is clearly the fertilizer from which all diplomacy grows.

At least there is no disputing that we should all find unsettling the World Bank report indicating that 17 members of the G20 have already broken November promises to quash protectionism. Right now everything is worrying. This is the moment my neuroses have been training me for all my life.

The question is what does the World Bank report signify? According the Bank, the report reveals a “worrying” drift toward protectionism. But to me, the report reveals an equally worrying drift toward rampant bullshit. Not that bullshit is anything new in international relations. It is clearly the fertilizer from which all diplomacy grows.

The big emerging question is however, whether bullshit is the only thing the G20 will actually ever be able to produce. It could, in fact, be that the single biggest achievement of the G20 has already happened. In fact, it happened even before the group was first convened on November 15th in Washington. It came the moment the invitations for that meeting were sent out revealing a new international consensus that the G8 was no longer the right group to serve as the steering committee for the global economic Titanic. The big emerging powers had to be in the room. They were too important to any solution not to be. 

That said, the subsequent meeting of G20 financial ministers, the actions of the countries involved and the statements of their leaders, and the pre-April 2nd summit buzz all seem to be suggesting that while the G8 may not be the right group, the G20 may not really be such a great improvement. First of all, in addition to their apparent inability to stick to their commitments (or worse their willingness to make commitments they knew they weren’t going to honor), they don’t seem to be able to count. Apparently, if you count the participating delegations, there are 26 members of the G20. I have far fewer voices in my head and I have a heck of a time making important decisions. Imagine what it’s like to be at a meeting of 26 delegations all primarily comprised of people who make a living speaking rather than listening. Who don’t speak the same language. Who don’t face the same kinds of problems and challenges because their economies are all so different. Some of whom are jet-lagged. Some of whom might be drinking their after-shave. (I know that was a Japanese minister at a G8 meeting…but it needed to be remembered.) 

It’s enough to make the judges table of American Idol look coherent.

In addition, a parade of leaders from the group seems to want to use the platform to be chosen to be the next geopolitical idol. Gordon Brown hopes that his star turn as host will save his career…or at least end it with a flourish. Sarkozy sees a chance to have the world dancing to a French tune. Vladimir Putin is offering two approaches. First, as a solo act, the Russians are proposing a new global reserve currency. (It can’t have crossed their minds that this might be damaging to the United States. But, hey, don’t let this dissuade all you Russo-philes out there from the idea that they’re just champing at the bit to be America’s best pal.) Then, in what is probably the most meaningful twist in the competition for the global limelight, the BRIC countries are doing a pretty good job of harmonizing their quartet, meeting regularly, making coordinated proposals and managing thus far not to be sidetracked by their substantial differences.

While there is a growing consensus that the April 2nd meeting will support a call for recapitalizing the IMF and other development institutions as well as launch a process to improve global regulatory coordination, big differences remain over issues like whether big national stimuli are a good idea (with some, like the Germans, actually suggesting that fiscal prudence makes sense and others, like the United States, voicing concern that the group as a whole is falling almost 50 percent shy of the IMF’s recommendation of stimulus packages equivalent to two percent of each country’s GDP). As a consequence, the meeting is likely to produce modest results in the way of agreements, lots of words and process and then a real question, thanks to evidence to date, as to whether or not any of them meant any of it in the first place.

In fact, based on all this, there are only two things we can predict with a high degree of confidence. One: The G20 like any other would be star, needs to drop a few excess pounds. In the end, we only need the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, India, and Brazil. Gee, eight. (The World Bank’s Bob Zoellick has suggested a G14. No more please.) And two: No matter how bad it is, Barack Obama and Tim Geithner are likely to be much happier over in Simon Cowell country than they are here in the good old USA. (Sorry…it’s country and western week on Idol.)

(This post has been updated.)

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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