The global economic crisis demands global solutions. Although it originated on Wall Street and was spread by the U.S. subprime housing bubble, the fallout in terms of the "real" economy has now hit all countries.
The G20 leaders' summit has been designed as a global economic crisis committee. The first ever G20 summit was held in Washington, D.C., last November, followed by the second one in London, England, earlier this month. Having had the opportunity to attend both summits, my impression is that although they share some characteristics -- as triggered by the same international crisis -- it is the differences between them that jump out.
The Washington summit was all about symbolism and not substance. The collective message was that the leaders of the most important countries, from all quadrants in the world, recognized the severity of the situation. Then U.S. president George W. Bush acted as host in a spirit more looking backward at his legacy than forward in terms of problem solving. He was pushed to act by a number of leaders, most vigorously by hyperactive French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Many of the invitees were skeptical but all turned up. Indeed, Sarkozy managed to squeeze in a number of additional attendees under the European Union umbrella, including Spain and the Netherlands. Sarkozy also tried to race toward an ambitious agenda by calling for both a revamped form of capitalism and a new Bretton Woods Agreement. By doing so, he tried to define the first G20 summit as one that pitted the champions of global regulation against the defenders of the Anglo-Saxon business model.
The style of the Washington summit was distinctly ad hoc. Although there were lots of sirens in the streets, security was for some events extraordinarily lax. For example, I attended the Sarkozy news conference at a downtown hotel simply by word of mouth and without going through any scrutiny. The handout for the news conference was a single sheet of points which Sarkozy embellished upon in his animated fashion.
What a difference 100 days make. The Bush legacy has been steamrollered away by the Barack Obama phenomenon. Instead of a lame duck with little to say, the new president used the occasion to signal the United States' embrace of change. Instead of a weary news conference in which Bush read a prepared statement, Obama answered questions in lively and sophisticated fashion. To be sure, Obama did not get everything he wanted, but he wrestled back the sense of initiative.
Instead of ad hocery, the London summit retained the image of a massive stage event. The Queen met with the Obamas in which every outfit, move and gift was covered in massive detail. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown elicited the help of a number of British celebrities to make the other leaders feel at home, even bringing chef Jamie Oliver to 10 Downing St. to cook the summit dinner. Security was extremely tight through London. Any sense that the United Kingdom is policed by unarmed bobbies was contravened by the unmistakable sight of heavily armed tactical units around the G20 forum.
As opposed to a symbolic message of concern about the crisis, the summit tried to address both its causes and effects. Much of its outcome was pre-cooked, endorsing many of the recommendations from the issue-based working groups. Yet some of the details attached to the London summit can be debated. The trillion dollars announced in the context of a massive new International Monetary Fund initiative contained some money that had previously been promised. Brown and Obama were not able to win agreement on the need for a collective set of domestic stimulus packages.
Still, it is difficult to disagree with the feeling that the G20 has become the new hub for global economic policy making.
Although Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel once again framed the debate in trans-Atlantic terms, the importance of the G20 is not simply as a forum in which the main debate is between different models of regulation and liberalism. The G20 serves as a site of a new concert of powers, including not just the major powers from 1945 (with the establishment of a permanent five member group within the UN Security Council) or 1975 (with the origins of the G8).
There is bound to be some considerable tensions that go along with this transition. Countries from the global South possess (and vocalize) a very different type of moral authority than countries from the North. Differences of interests extend to unanticipated issue areas, such as tax havens, where China defended the right of Hong Kong and Macau to be free of global regulation.
Most fundamentally, some countries from the global South are more important than others. The massive structural power that India, Brazil and China have developed outweighs the contributions of countries like Argentina and Turkey, although these countries bring functional legitimacy to the table.
The scope and intensity of the global economic fallout differs from country to country, but all are affected. Revived forms of global institutionalism offers considerable advantages in making sure appropriate and acceptable global solutions are on offer. This rejuvenated institutionalism extends out of the G20. One of the major results was the expansion of both the membership and functions of the Financial Stability Forum (now Board). The G20 also highlighted the need for reform of the International Financial Institutions, including the IMF and the World Bank.
In another hundred days or so, the G20 will meet again in New York City. Given the deep impact of the global recession, it will continue to act as a crisis committee. However, the importance of the G20 will not be this (hopefully) short-term effect. Its lasting contribution will be as a catalyst for change in not only what global leaders do, but why and with whom they do it.
Andrew F. Cooper is associate director and distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo.