G20 London 2009


G20 Gets a Big Obama Bounce

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Andrew F. Cooper
  CIGI Associate Director and Distinguished Fellow

On the eve of the G20 it looked as though the summit would be a marked failure. As with the first meeting in Washington DC meeting back in November the public optics were all about the clash of civilizations between the market oriented countries led by the US and the UK and the regulatory oriented countries led by France and Germany. The former pushed for a collective stimulus or ‘rescue’ package. The latter wanted to focus on putting into place constraints on the excesses of the so-called ‘Anglo-Saxon’ business model. In an unconventional move the German chancellor and the French president upped the ante via a joint appearance amidst speculation of red lines and even a De Gaulle-like empty chair.

A big crisis however did concentrate the mind of the leaders about the implications of a non result from the major economies. Cutting through the temptations to simply reinforce what President Obama called at his press conference national ‘quirks’ compromises were made to give the G20 the big result it needed to be a confidence booster.

Obama did not get national set of stimulus packages he originally wanted. But this omission was overshadowed by the announcement of the one trillion dollar initiative for the International Monetary Fund. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy did not get a grand new architecture of regulation but they got important bits and pieces of regulation directed at hedge funds and bankers’ pay, a revamped Financial Stability Board, and an upgraded drive against tax havens.

In cliched terms this was a win-win situation as leaders on both sides of the Atlantic could claim victory. Yet it must be allowed that the scope of these wins was highly differentiated. Although Gordon Brown did a first class job as host his government is fading into certain defeat at the next election with the idea of him extracting some further personal bounce through the G20 highly unlikely. Angela Merkel acted as a solid national leader but without any image of an international statesperson. Nicolas Sarkosy blends energy and shallowness as his stylistically impressive calls for action lack substantive follow up.

President Barack Obama enhanced his reputation in an unanticipated manner. Fighting a cold at his press conference his pronouncements of the G20 achievements were fairly perfunctory. And although he flashed some of his vast store of charm he also bobbed and weaved around some tough questioning. From the US press corps the focus was exclusively instrumentally. What did the G20 result mean for main-street USA? From the international journalists in attendance the focus was on the sense of American decline.

Although deft in these handlings of these questions (see my video blog for CBC as a G20 ‘insider’), it was his operative diplomacy not just his communication skills that deserves kudos. Behind the scenes he crafted a compromise between France and China on tax havens. He gave ground on issues without doing anything that was offside with his domestic initiatives. He gave the impression that a new type of assertive US leadership was on tap without being ‘soft’ in acknowledging that the US was the exclusively to blame for the crisis. While speaking about the flaws of Wall Street he also pointed to mistakes in the European and Asian banking sectors.

If Obama was the big winner he was not the only one. As other blogs have commented China made a mark to the extent where observers are talking about an informal G2 inside the G20. Institutionalism is back in whether in the case of the formerly obscure (the Financial Stability Forum, now Board) or the controversial (the IMF). The biggest winner of all – along with Obama – though may well be the G20. Here the parallelism about the positional ascendancy of the new US president and the new forum is striking. For if reports are right about the third G20 being in New York in September, it will be Obama who chairs the next stage of this dynamic process.

Disclaimer: This blog is solely intended to spur discussion, while the opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI, Chatham House or their respective Boards of Directors.