Hurry up and wait at G20 summit

June 18, 2012
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves to photographers upon his arrival to Los Cabos international airport to attend the G-20 Summit (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

This is the weirdest part, Act Two in the usual four-act play of global summitry.

Everything that comes before the G20 Leaders Summit amounts to Act One. At the front of the stage, you’ll see the media, academia and think tanks publicly analyzing the problems and the politics, recommending policy solutions. Backstage during this opening scene, the G20 teams of bureaucrats behind each national leader – the so-called “sherpas” – are busy negotiating possible wins that might become public at the summit.

The first act occurs over many months, and builds to a head on the eve of the great event itself. The curtain comes down on Act One just as 20 leaders, many hundreds of their staff, and 1,000-plus journalists converge on the summit site.

The moment has arrived. We all go to refresh our drinks, then return to our seats with anticipation. Surely, when the curtain rises again, Act Two will rock our world!

But Act Two is a dud – or perhaps it’s like being at the eye of a hurricane, surrounded by swirling noise, yet isolated from anything eventful. For about 48 hours, nothing much happens – or little that really matters.

During this phase, TV screens throughout the summit centre will display repetitive images of leaders’ planes landing at the airport, people coming down steps onto the tarmac, getting into SUVs, driving off to the convention centre. If that was interesting, airports could charge admission, but they don’t because it’s boring.

On it goes. The leaders are shown entering and emerging from their lunches, their plenary sessions, their dinners, their breakfasts. But they don’t give any hint of what they have said in those sessions. The media are kept at a distance. Oh wait, the leaders are posing for the family photo. Ho hum.

To bide the time and feed the media beast, journalists take turns interviewing experts on G20 issues, or even each other. At the press centre, a German radio reporter thrust his microphone at me and asked for my top-of-mind impression of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “just two or three words, please.” Off the cuff, all I could say was, “I feel sorry for her.” (I feel that way about people with enormous responsibility, in dire circumstances, with severe constraints on their ability to respond.) “Thank you!” he said, and pounced on the next passerby.

Brief flurries of fun occur. One summit participant turns his own press briefing into a public snit, in response to a Canadian reporter’s question about why North America should come to the rescue of Europe. “Frankly, we are not coming here to receive lessons in terms of democracy and in terms of how to run an economy,” sniffs the President of the European Commission, who also points out that the financial crisis began in North America.

Random leaders hold bilateral meetings, country A with country B, country C with country D – then follow these with grip-and-grin media briefings , sometimes trumpeting minor regional initiatives (here’s a bit of money for sub-Saharan farmers).

But it all feels like strange filler, while everyone waits for Act Three.

Cue drum roll, then cymbals.

Act Three is the release of the leader’s final communiqué and capital-D “Declaration,” expected at this particular summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, on the afternoon of Tuesday, June 19. 

Not seen by the audience, between Acts Two and Three, is the grueling all-night session by the sherpas to cleverly craft the wording of these documents. They take turns removing pithy concrete phrases that actually demand measurable action with deadlines, while adding a lot of embroidered language that does not, resulting in a verbal pablum to which all nations can nod assent.

For an example of the opposite of a G20 summit declaration, James Haley, CIGI Director of the Global Economy program, points to the Atlantic Charter of 1941, signed off the coast of Newfoundland. In one punchy page, it lists eight points of agreement between U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, as they pledge to destroy Nazi evil and create a world of peace – free from fear and want – for all people.

Don’t expect anything like that from Los Cabos. The Cannes declaration had 95 points and can only be read in one take if washed down with a mug of Red Bull.

Act Three only lasts for about an hour, until everyone’s eyes glaze over. Besides, they all have planes to catch; many of the media piggyback on their exiting leaders’ jets. Adios and gracias, Los Cabos.

Then we’re into Act Four. It involves the hindsight, analysis and punditry that follows the summit, as the media, academia and think tanks dissect the outcome.

Did the leaders make progress? Have they admitted their shortcomings in delivering on past commitments? Have they set realistic new timelines for effective collective action? Or have they only bought themselves more time while troubles compound in the global economy?

Don’t worry, no one’s going to give away the ending of this story. We can’t, because Act Four never ends.  It just goes on and on, while the script writers plan their next summit play.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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