The greatest “triumph” of the G20 is that we just don’t care that much … and why that’s scary…

In a world of self-help addicts who “just feel too much,” the ultimate hero was Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Never mind that the guy was a few rounds short of a full clip of ammo. He is the man who held his hand over a flickering candle flame while his flesh appeared to roast ...

580550_090924_rothkopfb2.jpg
580550_090924_rothkopfb2.jpg

In a world of self-help addicts who "just feel too much," the ultimate hero was Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Never mind that the guy was a few rounds short of a full clip of ammo. He is the man who held his hand over a flickering candle flame while his flesh appeared to roast and then, when asked how he did it, responded, "The trick is not caring."

I'm reminded of this because as we contemplate this week's G20 Summit in Pittsburgh and reflect back on the breathlessness with which the entire world viewed the last two such summits, it is clear that the trick they've seemed to accomplish is that this time around we all don't seem to care so much.

In a world of self-help addicts who “just feel too much,” the ultimate hero was Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Never mind that the guy was a few rounds short of a full clip of ammo. He is the man who held his hand over a flickering candle flame while his flesh appeared to roast and then, when asked how he did it, responded, “The trick is not caring.”

I’m reminded of this because as we contemplate this week’s G20 Summit in Pittsburgh and reflect back on the breathlessness with which the entire world viewed the last two such summits, it is clear that the trick they’ve seemed to accomplish is that this time around we all don’t seem to care so much.

That could, of course, be partially due to the fact that this event is in Pittsburgh and that not that much really exciting has happened there since Franco Harris’ “immaculate reception” during an AFC Playoff Game in 1972. At least for me, even recent Super Bowl victories have lacked the gritty drama of those by-gone days as the town has become spiffier and blander. (Have you been to Pittsburgh Airport recently? It’s a shopping mall where they happen to land planes.) It’s not that the city isn’t grittier than say, Santa Monica. It’s just that I feel some of that special Pittsburgh “let’s have a beer and then punch each other in the faces until we fall down” kind of charm is gradually being lost. We’re not too far from the day when a little kid asks, “Why do they call the team the Steelers, Daddy?” and the father then has to explain that once upon a time the steel that went into American cars and buildings was made right here in America. (More on this last point shortly.)

Of course, the reason the meeting is in Pittsburgh has to do with at least one respect in which the region is still seen as pretty exciting to certain types of folks — like professional politicians, for example. Obama needed Pennsylvania to defeat John McCain. And the people of Pittsburgh like our current Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney helped deliver for the president and the president is therefore regularly looking for ways to deliver right back. (This is not to suggest that Rooney might possibly have gotten his job as a form of political payback. His years of experience as the principal owner of the Steelers made him an obvious choice for an important diplomatic position. After all, what riddles could dealing with the Irish pose that would be more complex or challenging than say, former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s break-up with ice-skater JoJo Starbuck back in 1983.)

Rooney wasn’t the only one who helped Obama, however. Which, not surprisingly, brings us back to steel again … and in particular to the United Steelworkers. Because it is clear that it is not an accident that Obama will be using this meeting to call for new initiatives against global trade imbalances in the hometown of one of his favorite unions. Just like it’s not an accident that he primed the pump for his efforts with the recent decision to impose duties on Chinese tires, an issue that was pushed most vigorously by the steelworkers. Just like it’s not an accident that Obama’s new manufacturing czar is Ron Bloom, who was most recently the special assistant to the president of the United Steelworkers.

Which is all by way of saying, the G20 is not in Pittsburgh either because it’s beautiful (and it has its charms) or because it’s boring. The G20 is in Pittsburgh because of the domestic politics of U.S. international economics. Just as Marshall McLuhan once said “the medium is the message,” in this case the location is the message.

And so we return to the “trick” of this meeting. It is no small feat that while last November’s G20 meeting and the one that followed it in London in April were hot topics as the world careened through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, that this meeting is viewed in a more relaxed matter. There is an emerging consensus that things are slowly getting better, that we are probably even out of recession even you read this. (Feeling better yet?) No doubt this is largely due to the market working through its fears and repricing accordingly, but the speed and scope of interventions in the United States and China and even some parts of Europe undoubtedly had some positive effect. To the extent we are not still “falling off the table” in the words of Larry Summers, the G20 leaders deserve some of the credit.

And if this turns into a sustainable recovery, none of us should begrudge them the credit they get. But the problem with tricks is that they often involve some form of well, trickery. In the case of Liddy, the (not very well kept) secret was that he was bonkers. But in the case of most sleight of hand the secret is misdirection. We look in one direction while what is important is happening someplace else.

I hope that’s not what is happening with the global economy. I hope we are moving toward both a sustainable recovery and toward enacting regulatory reforms that ensure we don’t make the same mistakes that led to last year’s market debacle. I hope we are not looking at one set of indicators while ignoring another. But there are warning signs.

One is that while the G20 will agree on an expanded role for the IMF, national governments including our own are moving too slowly to address root causes of the recent crisis from opaque, often-illiquid but massive global derivatives markets to effectively controlling the risk appetites and exposures of large financial institutions whose failures carry with them a large risk of damage to the public at large. That’s not to say some measures aren’t being considered or implemented. It’s saying that many of the steps-like creating more transparent markets in some derivatives — don’t go far enough. The biggest banks are bigger. New risky behaviors are being embraced. Old ones are creeping back into vogue.

In fact, I can’t help but wonder if the biggest problem with the recent crisis was that it wasn’t painful enough. Or that perhaps it ended too quickly to deliver effectively the lessons we ought to have learned.

Further, on the macro level there’s still plenty to worry about. First, recovery will be slow. Second, those who are depending on Asia to lead us out don’t realize how limited their capability is to do that. Chinese consumers are many decades away from being able to make up for any substantial fall-off in demand from Americans. And there are risk factors out there … relating to dollar or commercial real estate markets or simply a panic induced by an exogenous event … that could lead to serious trouble…the dreaded “W.”

And finally, there’s Pittsburgh. Or rather the reason we are in Pittsburgh.  I’m not sure the Obama team has irreversibly set a protectionist course. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the issue is still something of an open question. Summers and Geithner are certainly not protectionists by instinct and USTR Ron Kirk is still getting his legs under him. But many of these decisions are getting made on the political side. So it might be that we will add to the cocktail of inadequate reforms and questionable macro trends policies that can only make things worse: like getting a series of trade scrapes and scuffles that will impede recovery and make key relationships much more complicated.

Which is why, just as with Liddy’s little trick, this one creeps me out a bit. The world is letting out a sigh of relief at a moment that has me holding my breath. 

SAUL LOEB/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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.