Shadow Government

G-20: A viewer's guide

We're in the analytical interlude between bursts of G-20 news stories. Late last month, G-20 finance ministers met to seek agreement in advance of their bosses' gathering. On Nov. 11-12, G-20 leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, will gather in Seoul for their second meeting of the year. In between, there is a nice opportunity to reflect on the question of whether the G-20 matters at all. Recent events suggest it may not.

Not so long ago, the Obama administration was prone to trumpet the elevation of the Group of 20 as one of its signal foreign policy achievements. Although the G-20 heads of state had met in Washington in Nov. 2008, with George W. Bush presiding, the leaders' summit was warmly embraced by the Obama team. The G-20 was lauded both for its style and its substance. In style, it was more inclusive than the G-8 that had previously held center stage. Perhaps the most significant newcomer to the global confabs on economic matters was China. In substance, the G-20 was praised for coordinating action to save the world from economic disaster and a descent into protectionism.

It is not clear that such enthusiasm was merited. On style, it was certainly a good idea to include China in global economic talks, but gathering 11 more countries around the table may not have been the most efficient way to do that. Although it would have strained diplomatic politesse, it might have made more sense just to substitute the PRC for Italy or Russia in the G-8 (or for both). A broader group has more legitimacy when it can reach an agreement, but that potential enhanced legitimacy is worthless if the breadth of the membership makes agreement impossible.

The question of the G-20's substantive achievements is murkier. It is certainly true that the leaders gathered in London agreed to go forth and save their economies. But the question is what the leaders would have done in the absence of such summitry. In some cases, like that of the United States, the stimulus package on which the Obama administration based its recovery hopes was passed months before the London summit. In other cases, such as that of China, it's hard to discern how the London agreement did anything to shape its approach to stimulus, which was quite distinct from that of its G-20 brethren. It was nice that the leaders gathered as a mutual support group, but how much encouragement did they need to each do what they each thought best for themselves?

It is true that the world avoided a repeat of major bouts of protectionism, as it saw on the eve of the Great Depression, but that seemed much more the work of the World Trade Organization than of the G-20.

Having taken credit for saving the world in the recent past, the G-20 is now aiming to address the problems of the near future. In Pittsburgh, a year ago, the leaders agreed to a "Framework for Strong, Sustainable, and Balanced Growth." On the premise that global imbalances helped cause the recent global financial crisis, this approach called for the major global players to moderate their economic behavior. Those who had borrowed excessively (e.g. the United States) would rediscover thrift. Those who had flooded the world with their savings (e.g. China) would discover the joys of consumption. Balance and harmony would prevail.

The leaders were able to agree to all this, so long as it remained at a principled level. They all agreed to the principle that it was a good idea to behave well. As soon as it was time to turn this into specifics, however, the problems began. Whereas the London commitments called on countries to stimulate their economies -- always fun for a while -- the Pittsburgh commitment would imply painful reversals, such as serious budget cuts in the United States and exchange rate appreciation in China.

Last month, at the G-20 Finance Ministers meeting in Seoul, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner took the most modest possible step toward implementing the Pittsburgh vision. Following the precept that the first step to solving a problem is recognizing that you have one, Geithner proposed that countries whose external deficits or surpluses persistently exceeded 4 percent of their national output had a problem.

The reaction was distinctly sour. While some countries made supportive noises, the most vocal opposition came, unsurprisingly, from countries whose surpluses persistently exceed 4 percent of GDP. I was in Beijing as this was announced and the reaction there was distinctly unenthusiastic. One official with whom I met, Dr. Huo Jianguo, director of the Ministry of Commerce's Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation, was quoted in China Daily as saying:

"Such a proposal seems to be more in favor of the US itself and a few nations, instead of most emerging markets and export-oriented economies. It is not reasonable for the US to demand that others make concessions for its own economic benefits."

When I asked various Chinese interlocutors how China could be in favor of the principle of rebalancing (the Pittsburgh declaration) but not any specific act of rebalancing, I was treated to a variety of creative interpretations of the word "rebalancing" (e.g. it means addressing the imbalances that exist between the developed and developing world). China is hardly the sole culprit in this disappointing drama. Germany did not seem to want much to do with Geithner's plan either.

I argued previously that with the principle agreed that major nations should rebalance, we needed a mini-summit to discuss implementation. Secretary Geithner's Seoul proposal amounted to an eminently sensible stress test of the principled agreement. So far, it looks shaky.

So what does this mean for the G-20 and the future of the global economy? This is the first real test of the G-20's power. For an international organization, meaningful power implies persuading countries to deviate, at least a little, from their natural inclinations. There have been some optimistic noises about the coming summit, but the leaders should get no points for platitudes. The test comes next week in Seoul.

If the G-20 fails this test, we should expect either a great deal of unilateralism, at least in those areas where no more effective international organization holds sway, or a search for a more effective global forum to discuss cooperation.

KIM JAE-HWAN/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Previewing the potential House Republican foreign-policy heavyweights

Absent a surprise showing of "Dewey Defeats Truman" proportions by Democrats, Republicans are very likely to take control of the House of Representatives as a result of Tuesday's midterm elections. A takeover of the Senate is less likely but also possible. I have speculated previously on what a GOP Congress might mean for President Barack Obama's national security policy (CliffsNotes version: The White House should be happy, because a Republican House will be more supportive of the Afghan war and would advocate a tougher posture towards Iran).

But what of the people who will actually comprise the new House majority? Foreign-policy issues have not played any significant role in this election (other than the Obama White House's ham-handed and scurrilous accusations of "foreign money" supporting Republican campaigns), in which jobs, the economy, and the deficit are voters' main concerns. Most new Representatives will enter office with little foreign policy experience -- with the notable exception of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. These vets -- who will join several other Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom vets already serving in the House -- won't necessarily take the same positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and national security. However, they will influence Congressional policy debates in at least two ways: bringing with them the credibility and insight gained from their firsthand experiences in theater, and through the informal networks they maintain with their military colleagues who are still deployed who can pass along back-channel assessments of front-line conditions.

More prominent in the shaping of congressional policy are the committee chairs. Committees are where the nuts and bolts of congressional business get done, such as hearings, and developing and moving legislation. And the chairs of each committee have considerable authority over its operations, including all-important hiring of staff, holding oversight hearings, shaping the content of bills, and deciding when and how to move legislation forward. Committee chairs are mostly determined by seniority, but the GOP Caucus and leadership play a key role and must approve all new chairs. So while no particular chair appointment is certain, here's a look at the likely new GOP chairs of key foreign policy related House committees:

  • Foreign Affairs: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Florida). A Cuban-American, Ros-Lehtinen has long been a vocal critic of the Castro regime, and will be in a strong position to scrutinize and resist any potential softening by the Obama administration on Cuba. But Cuba is by no means her only issue. Ros-Lehtinen is a savvy, experienced legislator who would likely focus on ways to strengthen anti-WMD proliferation policies, increase pressure on rogue regimes such as Iran, Syria, and Sudan, and elevate democracy promotion efforts. She is also a strong supporter of Israel.
  • Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Relations: Kay Granger (Texas). As obscure as this subcommittee may be outside the Beltway, it is essential for keeping the lights on at the State Department and U.S. embassies around the world, not to mention funding America's $52 billion foreign assistance budget in the "150 account." Granger, an internationalist who is co-chair of the House Anti-Terrorism Caucus and also serves on the board of the International Republican Institute, will likely maintain a robust commitment to foreign assistance, including support for democracy and human rights promotion, even during a time of fiscal austerity. She won't be cutting blank checks, however, evidenced by her skepticism towards the Karzai government's corruption and concerns about insufficient oversight of civilian assistance funds for Afghanistan.
  • Armed Services: Howard "Buck" McKeon (California). McKeon is a vocal opponent of the "declinist" foreign-policy school, and has been critical of what he sees as the White House's half-hearted support for victory in Afghanistan. With expertise in defense budgeting and procurement processes, he is a strong supporter of an increased Pentagon budget and long-term investments in weapons research. In 2011, he will also bring considerable scrutiny to the administration's stated plans to begin a troop drawdown from Afghanistan in July.
  • Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence: Elton Gallegly (California). On homeland security issues, Gallegly has focused more on illegal immigration than on intelligence; retiring ranking member (and former chair) Pete Hoekstra has been the most visible House Republican on intelligence issues. Nevertheless, Gallegly has shared most of Hoekstra's critiques of many of the Obama administration's counterterrorism policies, particularly its (now dormant) plans to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, occasional Mirandizing of terrorism suspects, and curtailing the use of coercive interrogation techniques. As chair, Gallegly would subject the administration to much more scrutiny than it has experienced under current chairman Silvestre Reyes (Texas).
  • Ways and Means: Dave Camp (Michigan). Ways and Means gets the most notoriety attention for its role as the committee in charge of writing tax law, but its jurisdiction over international trade policy makes it a key player on foreign policy as well. Unlike the current protectionist Chair Sander Levin (D-MI), Camp is a committed free trader. Along with likely Trade Subcommittee Chair Kevin Brady (Texas), Camp can be expected to make a priority of ratifying the FTAs with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, which have heretofore been stalled -- primarily due to opposition from the Democrats' labor union base.

If the GOP takes control of even one house of Congress, the Obama White House will face serious obstacles to its domestic agenda, and will probably follow the tried-and-true pattern of focusing more on foreign policy for the remaining two years of its term. Starting on November 3, the administration's national security team would do well to reach out and get to know the members listed above.

*This post has been corrected.

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images