Meeting as metaphor: a G20 that suggests a shift in the world’s own worldview

The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy ...

587171_090402_symbolBB2.jpg
587171_090402_symbolBB2.jpg

The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy direction and will help the neediest nations but do not address the larger growth issues associated with the world's largest economies, the ones that created the crisis and will lead the way out. As for those economies, commitments to stimulus were soft and the follow-through on them is destined to be spotty. The regulatory steps outlined -- focusing on hedge funds, bank secrecy and executive salaries, for example -- don't cut to the core issues associated with risk-laden global derivatives markets or the other larger causes of the recent crisis and they fall far short of the global regulatory structures we will ultimately need to manage truly global markets. And it is unclear just how much of the $250 billion announced for trade finance is actually new money. 

But just as it would be wrong to overstate the specific outcomes of the meeting, it would be wrong to dwell on the output of one such meeting or the fact that it did not produce every desirable change. The reality is that the meeting is meaningful on many levels. It was sufficiently productive and harmonious to suggest that the G20 may be the vehicle of choice for high-level international economic policy coordination at least for the foreseeable future -- certainly through and likely beyond the next meeting, already scheduled for the fall on the edges of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Not only was the outcome moderately substantive but it afforded leaders like President Obama an efficient means of interacting with all his key counterparts on a wide range of issues. This de facto ratification of the idea of adding the largest emerging economies to the steering committee for the global economy is important as is the semi-official recognition that henceforth when the United States and China meet, they comprise the G2. Related to this, the acknowledgement that emerging powers require more voting authority within international institutions is a good and meaningful step and reflective of longer-term changes that indicate a shifting global balance of power.

The most important outcomes of the G20 Summit had to do with symbolism, process, and the evolution of international ideas. The specific actions taken were less important and, as we will likely see, less significant than they could or should have been. The monies allocated to the IMF represent a good step in a healthy direction and will help the neediest nations but do not address the larger growth issues associated with the world’s largest economies, the ones that created the crisis and will lead the way out. As for those economies, commitments to stimulus were soft and the follow-through on them is destined to be spotty. The regulatory steps outlined — focusing on hedge funds, bank secrecy and executive salaries, for example — don’t cut to the core issues associated with risk-laden global derivatives markets or the other larger causes of the recent crisis and they fall far short of the global regulatory structures we will ultimately need to manage truly global markets. And it is unclear just how much of the $250 billion announced for trade finance is actually new money. 

But just as it would be wrong to overstate the specific outcomes of the meeting, it would be wrong to dwell on the output of one such meeting or the fact that it did not produce every desirable change. The reality is that the meeting is meaningful on many levels. It was sufficiently productive and harmonious to suggest that the G20 may be the vehicle of choice for high-level international economic policy coordination at least for the foreseeable future — certainly through and likely beyond the next meeting, already scheduled for the fall on the edges of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. Not only was the outcome moderately substantive but it afforded leaders like President Obama an efficient means of interacting with all his key counterparts on a wide range of issues. This de facto ratification of the idea of adding the largest emerging economies to the steering committee for the global economy is important as is the semi-official recognition that henceforth when the United States and China meet, they comprise the G2. Related to this, the acknowledgement that emerging powers require more voting authority within international institutions is a good and meaningful step and reflective of longer-term changes that indicate a shifting global balance of power.

That said, among the other symbolic outcomes of the meeting worth noting was the reassertion of America in a leadership role that was broadly accepted and indeed encouraged by other participants. Obama may not have gotten just what he wanted in terms of specifics on global stimulus and Gordon Brown may have announced the end of the “Washington Consensus,” but contrast the reaction to this U.S. president to that to the last — and contrast his tone and that of his senior aides. It was night and day and, make no mistake, the Obama era is the one shining more brightly in the eyes of the international community.     

As for the evolution of ideas, the meeting further solidified the sense that hyper-capitalism and unfettered markets are things of the past. So, too, is the idea that economic problems are national problems. Brown, who has had a rough few months and for whom the event should be seen as a considerable achievement, referred to the indivisible nature of our economic interests and fates. Does this mean we should now believe that the G20 leaders are more committed to, for example, open trade than they were the last time they professed such views? Of course, not. National politics will continue to bedevil international coordination for the foreseeable future. But it does mean that meetings such as this one will be a fixture throughout that future and that, more than anything else achieved in London, is a net positive of the most profound sort.

In conclusion, it can be said that meetings like the just-concluded G20 work more on the level of metaphor or political theater than they do as functioning working sessions. And while this one may have come up slightly short or individual leaders may have gotten slightly less than they wanted on one issue or another, we shouldn’t miss the really primary outcomes in terms of messages. And those are that the world sees itself very differently than it did just a year ago, that there is even among very different countries evolving agreement about what has changed and that this will have significant repercussions for many years to come.

ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/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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