The Herdson View: If it was so important why only 2 days?

The Herdson View: If it was so important why only 2 days?

Are Summits Suffering from Attention Deficit?

For the ten presidents, fourteen prime ministers and one king who attended the G20 summit in London it’s generally been a very successful week. All look to have got much of what they wanted from the final communique, there have been some excellent photo-opportunities which will play well to domestic audiences, there’s been welcome progress on other topics – such as the nuclear arms limitation talks between the US and Russia – and it has afforded an excellent extremely high-level networking opportunity.

There have also been agreements reached on some of the central economic issues on the agenda which if implemented may represent genuine progress.

However, now that they’ve gone on their way, back to their countries or on to further international meetings, it’s perhaps worth asking what exactly the London Summit achieved? Not the agreements made or the commitments pledged (or the issues left alone or fudged) but what came out of the event itself.

The G20 meetings at head of state/government level are a relatively recent innovation; this week’s was only the second, after the Washington summit last Autumn. While the participants are obviously the people who have the most clout to effect change, they’re also people who have the greatest demands placed on their time. It is rare for such senior politicians to devote lengthy periods of time to resolving a particular problem at a single summit, and especially to one as technical but with as wide-ranging impacts as the global recession.

London 2009 was no exception. There were just two days of talks, of which most of the first was informal, with time taken out for bilaterals and meetings on other topics in and amongst. Thanks to the leak from the Germans, we know that the majority of the discussion had been done beforehand, presumably through negotiations at a more junior level; we also know that the final agreements and commitments were far from a complete package – there are big outstanding issues on the Doha trade round, on exactly how to clear up the toxic debts, on how to manage asymmetric stimulus packages, on currency reform and on the precise nature of the changes to the international institutions and their powers that the leaders signal are required. All require further negotiation.

If this is the biggest crisis to face the world since the end of World War II, doesn’t it deserve longer than a couple of days? In fact, doesn’t it deserve negotiating through to an implementable agreement? On the other hand, if it’s not so pressing, why not leave it to the Finance Ministers and Central Bank chiefs who’ve always formed the G20 until now?

Before expectations started to be dramatically scaled back, there was talk of the conference being a ‘second Bretton Woods’, yet the Bretton Woods conference lasted three full weeks, itself built on draft proposals already well advanced and met at a time when Britain and the United States, due to their position in the world, could largely design the institutions for the non-Communist world between them – a big contrast with today‘s multi-polar world.

A timescale measured in weeks rather than days is not untypical of that kind of conference. The San Francisco conference which set up the UN in 1945 lasted two months; Versailles in 1918-9 took longer still and it was held at head of government level; the Congress of Berlin in 1878 (probably the first modern summit) lasted over four weeks. Even the 1945 Yalta summit, which contained only three participants and had less detail to agree than the institution-creating conferences, lasted eight days.

If those timescales are unthinkable today, because of 24 hour news and other increases in the pace of government, then (San Francisco apart, which was not a Head of Government conference), that’s little different from the contemporary view of the innovations contained in the nature of the big summits of the past. (As an aside, wouldn’t it have been interesting if blogging had been around at the time of these summits?)

There are however at least two big difference between those conferences or summits and the G20. The first is the acuteness of the issue. Although ministers and economic experts talk of this being the worst crisis since the 1930s, that’s not backed by the empirical evidence to the average person in the street. Unemployment and bankruptcies are up and are likely to go on rising and stock markets and house prices are down and likely to go on falling but there’ve been no repetitions of the iconic images of the 1930s of soup kitchens and mass unemployment; revolutions and civil wars overthrowing democratic regimes.

There has certainly been no global catastrophe like the world wars that so concentrated minds at Versailles, Yalta, San Francisco or Bretton Woods. Without those factors, it’s difficult for leaders to justify to their public taking weeks or even months out to go abroad and resolve international issues when there are pressing problems at home. It’s also difficult to justify to themselves leaving the centre of their own stage for too long, with all the risks that runs.

The second issue is transport. The participants of the past continued their talks through to a conclusion in part because they’d already invested heavily in reaching agreement simply by the time they spent getting to the venue and back. Modern transport means that global leaders can assemble and depart with ease. A corollary of that fact is that they end up with far more international commitments – even if they’d wanted to stay longer at the G20 summit, many had to go on to Strasbourg for the NATO shindig.

Is modern summitry incapable of resolving the world’s problems? In particular, is it incapable of resolving the current economic problem? Perhaps it is, but then perhaps it doesn’t need to – leaders can co-ordinate their actions much more easily and rapidly now than was ever the case in the great crises of the past: they had to come together to talk. It does though beg the question of what it’s all for.

One final point. The communique includes a statement of intent to ensure that “in future, regulation [of the financial system] must prevent excessive leverage and require buffers of resources to be built up in good times” (my italics). Difficult to argue against – but isn’t that final section equally applicable to governments and doesn’t it echo exactly what the Conservatives have been saying? Even if the sentiment is sound, it’s surprising that Brown allowed that precise form of words.

David Herdson



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