Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Last G20?

It was a grim G20 meeting in Pittsburgh, as the leaders of 20 influential countries got together for an invitation-only photo opportunity and carefully choreographed discussion. World leaders were careful not to smile as they discussed the unspecified military consequences of Iran’s actions in opening a second uranium processing facility. They were also careful not to go outside, where they would run the risk of being handcuffed and shoveled into police vans along with other innocent bystanders.

The police, for their part, used the event as a rehearsal for the military-style operations they might need if actual civil disorder broke out at some point in the future. There were not many protesters, so police practiced enforcing the unofficial curfew by arresting a group of sports fans, clearing customers off of commercial streets, and lobbing tear gas onto a university commons. (It sounds like the people in Pittsburgh are making this up, but the videos prove this is what actually happened.) The massive police presence, augmented by the military, presented such a danger to the actual summit meeting that any future G20 meetings perhaps ought to be held on a military base or behind the fortified walls of an embassy compound — there is no local color to be had in these meetings anyway.

But I am not so sure there will be any more G20 meetings. The only substantial policy announcement at this G20, concerning tighter rules for bank assets (they couldn’t agree on the part about limiting compensation for bank executives), could just as well have been conducted by carrier pigeon. A few paragraphs describing policies that may or may not be implemented over the next three years is hardly worth the travel time for the British prime minister, let alone the 19 other heads of state who had to make the trip. And while the G20 participants are careful not to let their disagreements ruin their photo-op, stories hint at testy exchanges behind the scenes that called into question not just the structure of the G20, but the whole world order.

If it is this hard to hold a summit meeting this year, how much harder will it be next year, when more things are actually in flux? The next big summit meeting might have to be postponed until after the world’s pressing problems are solved, and by then, it could very well be a different group of countries holding the meeting.