G-20 and the bottle of expectation on economy, climate and conflict

Every significant political moment generates a bottle of expectation. As it looms up and unfolds, the news media and commentators start rushing to judge how far the bottle has been filled by actual achievement. The G-20 – the world’s 19 richest states, plus the EU, the IMF, World Bank and a couple of other financial institutions – meet on Thursday 2 April in London. In full anticipation that the half-full/half-empty metaphor will be used to excess over the next few days, what are reasonable expectations this time?

The Expectations Game

The Expectations Game gets played during every election campaign, at summit meetings, at budget time and, nowadays, stimulus-time, and not only before and during party conferences and conventions but also in the build-up to key parliamentary debates and even hearings. These days, massaging expectations up and down is a crucial political skill – and perhaps the hardest part of communication because this is a competitive game in which the number of teams and players is variable and anarchic. A quick review is in order.

The teams

Imagine yourself as a Brown or Obama and think about the other players.

Opposition: Some of them oppose you – they want something different from you. For example, China wants a new IMF and Germany wants no new stimulus. To make it more complicated, they have their own Expectations Games to play. For example, Russia wants no stimulus so opposes America on that but President Medvedev wants to make nice with Obama. Meanwhile President Sarkozy wants action or he will walk out (though his spokesperson massaged that expectation down from ‘will’ to ‘might’ almost as soon as Sarkozy aired the walk-out idea). These different games cut across yours and make it hard for you to control the agenda and the news cycle.

Interference: Meanwhile, there are players without a game of their own who are running deliberate interference. They will down-play expectations when you want to bang the drum and turn up the volume if you want to go modest. These are your political opponents on the home front and they are just gagging for you to trip up; they don’t mind whether you do this by disappointing bloated expectations or by maintaining modest expectations while others take the lead, hit the mark, and reap the rewards. So the interference players feel no responsibility to be the slightest bit consistent in their comments and criticisms. Confusion and white noise are their stock in trade. They will, of course, jump on anything the opposition teams and players say. For example, when the Australian Prime Minister says that a new coordinated package of economic stimulus was never an issue, they take that as a blow to Brown and Obama, rather than as Kevin Rudd playing Aussie Rules Expectations. Mind you, he’s going to face trouble from his own interference if Obama gets a result that he can spin as a major new economic package. 

Spectators: This is a spectator sport. Some of the spectators are just there for the fun – commentators, pundits, bloggers and the like. They can be idealists or sceptics, sometimes on alternating days of the pre-summit week. And there are the earnest, demonstrative spectators, 35,000 of whom have already mobilised on the streets of London, with more expected in the next few days. For both the earnest and the fun-loving, the great thing about this spectator sport is that it’s participatory. Running onto the field of play with a new ball or a sudden change of rules is the gold standard as far as the spectators are concerned.

The results

Against all of this background noise, who knows what to think about what will qualify as success or failure? Well, everybody actually. That’s the nature of the game.

Despite its knockabout and theatrical nature, this is a serious business. I have two decisions I would like to see and two statements that I shall call acts of recognition. If the summit scores four of four, I will regard it as successful, but because these constitute relatively modest expectations, success in this form will only fill the bottle to the 75 per cent level. It would be solid achievement but not spectacular. Additional achievements of any significance, different ones etc will obviously fill the bottle to different degrees. Or not.

So here is what would three-quarters fill my bottle:

Decision: Global financial regulation This is about much more than tax havens. It’s about regulating the operation of the international finance sector. It has to slow down, allow banks to perform as a public service, and generate investment capital by mobilising actual wealth rather than papier mache manoeuvres. I don’t buy the case that this cannot be done. Even less do I buy the case that it should not. I do accept that, as the Chair of the UK Finance Services Authority, Adair Turner, has argued, it can advantageously be started by the EU; others will almost certainly want either to join or copy a viable-looking new regulatory system. It can also be started by a group of states who take the new system of regulation upon themselves – a group of 19 states plus the EU would just about fit the bill.

Decision: Support for poor countries Accepting the case that stimulus packages so far implemented need to be given some more months to work, it remains true that too little has so far has been done to provide support for poor countries. Their development prospects are being knocked sideways by the global recession. What is needed is a combination of trade openings, investment capital to keep key economic and social infrastructure projects going, and stand-by finance for short-term damage limitation. Re-capitalising the IMF to a much larger level is a small part of this. Rich countries promising to meet targets for their overseas development aid is another part of the picture. Additional special financial arrangements are a third part. Stabilising investment and sustaining established projects are a fourth part. The biggest and best part of this (though unlikely) is to revive the Doha round of trade negotiations and get fair terms of trade for the products of developing countries.

Act of recognition: Low carbon economy This is not the meeting at which participants will agree on the details of a low carbon pathway for economic development henceforth. But in the midst of recession, while there is time to ensure the recovery is green, and in the year of the Copenhagen summit for a new treaty on global warming, this is a timely opportunity for world leaders to clarify their intentions and display their sense of responsibility, making clear their commitment to the low carbon recovery for rich and poor countries alike, and likewise making clear their agreement on the broad terms of what to do. Recognition of the importance of this and the definitive abandonment of all excuses for inaction, whether they emanate in their different but uniformly shabby varieties from America, the EU, China, India or Russia – these are reasonable expectations of this meeting.

Act of recognition: Global risk As I have argued in earlier posts, the economic recession exacerbates the risk of violent conflict for at least two or three years ahead. The worst prospect – the ‘perfect storm’ in which all the ingredients for disaster come together – is of a regional war in the developing world that governments in rich countries do not have the capacity or energy to address because they are wholly focused on social crises unleashed by the recession. The first step in managing risk is to recognise it. Nothing more than assurance that this issue is on the agenda of the richest and most powerful countries in the world is required or possible from the G-20 at this stage in its evolution.

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