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

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