OSAKA – U.S. President Barack Obama put on a cheerful face before he climbed aboard Air Force One to go home from the Group of 20 summit in Brisbane. He chortled that the summit “wasn’t just a good old chin wag, I really love that expression.” He listed achievements on the economy and trade, climate change and Ebola, and boasted that the meeting had promoted “historic steps toward a cleaner and healthier planet.”
Far be it from me to accuse the president of the most powerful country on Earth of wishful thinking, but he is stretching the facts and ignoring some difficult home truths — which are that this battered and fragile planet needs something better than an alphabet soup of summits to sustain it. We are in more perilous times than Obama or any other leader admits or has solutions for. Underneath the claims to have agreed on 800 measures to inject $2.1 trillion to global growth by 2018 and to clean up the planet, disagreements among leaders about the way to go imperil all our futures.
The G-20 claims to “represent over 85 percent of the global economy”. But real power lies — dangerously — with national government heads who could hardly give a damn about the rest of the world. Look what happened at Brisbane. The city’s pleasant center became a “red zone” and locked down, “zombiefied” as one local commentator put it. At the University of Queensland, where Obama made a speech, police declared a special security zone with invitation-only guests were banned from wearing masks or carrying eggs.
There is something wrong when there are 6,000 police on duty, almost two for every delegate. How can anything get done when the 20 heads of government swell to 40-plus with guest leaders and assorted U.N. hangers-on, and they spawn endless officially approved offspring, including B-20 (business), C-20 (civil society), L-20 (labor), Q-20 (Queensland), T-20 (think, meaning academics) and Y-20 (youth)?
The G-20 devised its own glossary, including AEOI (automatic exchange of information), BAP (Brisbane Action Plan), FWG (Framework Working Group, “the body charged with advancing the G-20 Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth”), LEMM (not lemmings but labor and employment ministerial meeting), NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). Let’s not forget the sherpas, the leaders’ representatives who “progress thematic priorities” and the HoDs themselves (heads of delegations), like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Obama.
Always be suspicious of a body with a “vision statement,” especially the G-20, which promises, “we have a responsibility to all citizens” and “we will … listen carefully to all countries and institutions that are not in the Group.”
The G-20 is not a meeting for learning or dialogue but for posturing and selfies. What can anyone do in two days when the communiqué has been more or less decided in advance by the sherpas, so the real task of the leaders is to tweak a comma or soften or, horror, strengthen, a word, perhaps turn a “promise” into a “commitment”?
OK, in Brisbane there were some material changes added, especially on climate change, against the wishes of the host Prime Minister Tony Abbott. There may be some momentum on climate change, with Obama and Xi making joint but separate commitments after the APEC summit and with Japan pledging funds. But these are promises made against figures that are easy to fudge, and Obama at least is not the master of his own country.
Within minutes of Obama and Xi making their promises, Obama was opposed by leading Republicans who will control both houses of Congress from next year. Mitch McConnell, incoming majority leader of the Senate, declared that the move was costly, unpopular, and he would fight it: “Our economy can’t take the president’s ideological war on coal that will increase the squeeze on middle-class families and struggling miners.”
There is also the incipient contradiction of economic growth: If the G-20 can indeed get their collective acts together, fulfill the 800-item laundry list and raise growth, won’t that just increase energy consumption, add to greenhouse gases and continue to cook our planet?
The trumpeted economic progress at Brisbane cannot hide political fault lines between the major powers. The bashing of Putin over Ukraine was the glaring example, sending Putin home before the communiqué was announced with the claim that he needed some sleep on the long flight back to be fresh for work the next day: no doubt.
But among the smaller headlines from Brisbane, the U.S., Japan and Australia agreed to work together on strengthening maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. Xi will not like that.
Obama’s speech at the University of Queensland took an increasingly tough tone against China. He declared: “We believe that nations and peoples have the right to live in security and peace; that an effective security order for Asia must be based — not on spheres of influence, or coercion, or intimidation where big nations bully the small — but on alliances of mutual security, international law and international norms that are upheld, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Professor Hugh White in Lowy Institute’s “The Interpreter” blog pointed to some key problems for Obama: “Although Obama repeated the assurances he has made before about his resolve to use ‘all the elements of America’s power’ to impose America’s vision of Asia’s future on a reluctant China, he did not explain what more America would or could do, beyond what it has been doing for the last three years, to resist China’s challenge to U.S. leadership. Obama therefore gave us no reason to believe he has an answer to what he himself clearly sees as China’s increasingly powerful bid to create a ‘new model of great power relations’ in Asia.”
There are important wider points to make. The seven billion people on this fragile fractured planet, fighting real-world problems of daily existence, finding work, food, bringing up families, surely deserve better quality entertainment than that offered by the G-20. At little change from A$500 million for the two-day summit in Brisbane, the G-20 is not good value for money.
There is a big gap between the pomp and circumstance of glittering summit meetings and the hard world of realpolitik. This was demonstrated at and after the APEC summit in Beijing. Xi’s frosty greeting of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the summit, which may represent a thaw in ties between Asia’s two biggest economies, showed Xi as a leader who calls the shots.
While APEC was in session, Obama got his chums together to try to promote the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, which specifically excludes China; Xi responded by pushing and winning approval for his broader idea of a free trade area of Asia and the Pacific covering all 21 APEC members.
The world is facing a growing global power vacuum, which neither the crumbling old institutions, like United Nations, IMF and World Bank, nor the new, all the G-groupings included, can fill.
The U.S. is faltering and divided. Democratic critics blame Obama. “This man is an island,” claims David Rothkopf, CEO of Foreign Policy and former official under Bill Clinton, accusing the president of isolating his superior self, though even a more congenial Obama would have had difficulties with cussed Republicans. Putin is making mischief in Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and with Iran, Syria, China, as he eyes recovery of some former Soviet domains.
But the new kid on the block is rising China’s Xi, whose body language dealing with Abe and with Obama showed a superior, confident man, who will make deals when it suits him, but will show disregard or contempt for outside opinion when he opposes it, whether it is Hong Kong’s call for democracy, the New York Times’ for visas for its reporters or Obama on trade.
Interesting times ahead: remember that old Chinese curse.
Kevin Rafferty is a professor at Osaka University.
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