A G-20 Summit for the Ages

Police on duty outside Parliament yesterday ahead of Thursday's Group of 20 summit in London.
Police on duty outside Parliament yesterday ahead of Thursday's Group of 20 summit in London. (By Matt Dunham -- Associated Press)
By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And now for a riddle: What is big, loud, unnecessary and costs $75 million? No, not a retired elephant in a diamond-studded dress: The answer is, of course, a Group of 20 summit. These G-20 meetings -- younger, chubbier cousins of the equally pointless G-7 and G-8 summits -- have been going on since 1999, in an under-the-radar kind of way, but lately they have taken on a new urgency. Indeed, the next one, in London on Thursday, is being widely billed as the one that will rescue the international economic system, provoke a stock market rally, create lasting prosperity and save the politicians present from the disgruntled voters protesting outside. And all of this in a single day!

Yet the truth is that nothing that will be discussed at the summit, and nothing that will be discussed at any of the follow-up summits, could not also have been discussed on the telephone. Or by e-mail. Or on a Skype conference call. Indeed, one British writer suggests that "the world's leaders should have followed their usual platitudes about looking to the future and engaging the young by holding the whole thing on Facebook."

But then, the purpose of this summit, like all such summits, is not really discussion. It is politics. From the hosts' perspective, the primary purpose is to rescue Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, whose popularity is at record lows. Brown spent the years between 1997 and 2007 serving as Britain's chancellor of the exchequer -- the equivalent of America's Treasury secretary -- and thus cannot, like his American counterparts, blame Britain's financial crisis on the mistakes of the previous administration. He took credit for Britain's booming economy during those years and is being held responsible for Britain's unusually deep recession: For weeks now, the British press has been howling for him to "apologize." If nothing else, those official summit photographs -- Brown surrounded by the leaders of America, China, Russia, Argentina, against the grim, industrial background of London's Isle of Dogs -- will make him feel important again.

Others have different agendas, none of which entail much real discussion either. The Obama administration, for example, hopes to use the summit as a tool to bludgeon the Germans and others into spending more money: They want each country present to commit 2 percent of its gross domestic product to a stimulus package, creating a sort of family support structure for the gazillion-dollar American stimulus package. This would, in theory, allow our president, too, to go home and declare victory. And if it doesn't happen, at least he'll have a culprit when the international economy does not fix itself within a month or two: It will all be the fault of the Europeans, who -- typical Continentals! -- dither, dissemble and squabble among themselves instead of rallying to the American call.

While I am usually the first to accuse the Europeans of dithering and dissembling, I actually have some sympathy for the Germans on this point. The reason they, the French and many others in Europe -- the British are an exception -- have avoided spending large amounts of money on their economy is not that they are incompetent Continentals. It is because they do not think it will work. Strange though it may sound, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, are leaders who, for better or for worse, came to have some respect for what used to be called Anglo-American capitalism, with what used to be its reputation for fiscal conservatism. More to the point, they are also running up against the limits of what they can borrow and are worried about inflation as well.

This latter worry is even more acute in many smaller European countries, some of which are actually cutting their budgets and introducing financial austerity packages as a result. Though these policies aren't popular now, their advocates might well be proved right in the end. There is an analogy, here, albeit an unfortunate one, to the recent past. After Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration, instead of fixing al-Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan for good, decided to invade Iraq. The Europeans balked -- and those who didn't, such as the British, are now sorry. After the banking crisis, the Obama administration, instead of regulating the banking system and the mortgage market, decided to devise a massive stimulus package, build a lot of bridges, expand educational spending and maybe fix health care, too. The Europeans are balking again. Will those who aren't, such as the British, be sorry a few years from now, too?

At least if that happens, this week's G-20 summit will take on genuine importance. It won't be just another summit, producing another pile of documents, containing another bunch of euphemisms but, rather, will be a turning point. It will be remembered forever as the moment some of the rich world headed off in one direction and the rest headed off somewhere else. Which might mean it has been worth at least a portion of that $75 million.


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