November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Jim Palombo

 

G-20 in Retrospect

 

 In the last edition of ragazine.cc, I provided some comment in anticipation of traveling to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for the G-20 summit. Having participated in the proceedings, in both summit and demonstration venues, here’s my follow-up. As always, feel free to comment or add your insights accordingly.

 The scale of the G-20 mandate

Clearly, building a sustainable global recovery amid the financial crisis that has both stunned the world and stunted its processes, seems a daunting and enormous undertaking. In fact, whether or not this could actually happen, particularly with any sense of urgency, and especially given the historical, political, social and religious differences among the countries represented at the G-20, seems open to question. After all, given the differences, particularly as they are intricately tied to the essence of economically motivated interests, well, it’s not hard to imagine the chore at hand.

In any event, the mandate of the G-20 has been directed at precisely this effort. Importantly, the major theme that has been integrated into the process is that business can no longer continue in its current form. Said another way, “business as usual” cannot coexist with the change needed in how the economic/financial/market systems are being run. What exactly “changing the system” means, and to what extent it’s possible in terms of regulation, de-regulation, and/or system “policing,” seems to remain in the balance of the G-20 considerations.

As a follow-up to the earlier Summit in London, what happened in Pittsburgh centered primarily around these issues: restructuring global financial institutions;  preserving, restoring and protecting trade investments; securing food and agricultural growth;  protecting the climate and the environment; and reinforcing the prosperity and health of the citizens of both developed and developing countries. Of course, this meant that the details, data and designs relative to each issue were expected to be sorted through, with some consensus among the countries – again, amid all the ‘differences’ referenced above – expected. It also meant that these negotiations would be happening under the growing threat of terrorism and war, two concerns underscored by the discovery of an Iranian nuclear plant the second day of the Summit.           

Although much could be said pertinent to the vast amount of economic variables tied to the G-20 proceedings, and/or on what each country must do to bring about global financial change, and/or on the intricacies of organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, The World Trade Organization, The Financial Stability Board or the International Finance Corporation, I will leave this to others, those with perhaps more expertise. Instead, what I would like to reference is more in tune with what stood out to me as I moved about the Summit, talking with people and listening to the briefings and interviews that were happening throughout the two days of the meeting.  I would suggest that you can certainly follow-up on the wide variety of elements tied to the Summit should you so desire, particularly given the amount of material that is being produced from it.  Along these lines, the closing speech of the Summit printed ‘on-line’ is a start. It certainly provides more on the expanse of variables set upon the international community’s table.

 

Observations amid the G-20

I

On the logistical and organizational aspects of the Summit:  Aside from the enormity of the mandate of the G-20, these were the first things that struck me.  I’m not sure that any of it could have been done another way, but it seemed the cost and resources attached to bringing in the delegates, making the huge David Lawrence center operational for media, G-20 participants and the security personnel (there was a large number of security people inside the facility, intermingled with the 2000 media individuals and G-20 participants), and securing the city with some 4,000 police and military personnel had to be enormous. Placed up against the global financial crisis itself, it wasn’t hard to understand the criticism that the Summit seemed symbolic of how resources, certainly needed elsewhere, can be wasted. The staging of the entire event also did little to support the aforementioned theme that the G-20 would not be about “business as usual.”

                                                               

II

On security:  The armed police and military personnel, both in full battle gear, stationed at various checkpoints throughout the city roads and bridges or often passing in the streets in small bands of ten or twenty, the police boats in the river waters, the barricades, the wire and fencing, and the closing down of many of the streets, made the city look like a military zone. It reminded me of a smaller version of Zagreb where I had been during the early ‘90s, amid the Bosnian conflict. Many of the residents from Pittsburgh whom I chatted with felt this whole process was too much, and it served more to close off their city to visitors than anything else –  not a good thing for Pittsburgh overall. Again, I’m not sure of the alternative, nor were those I spoke with, particularly given the potential for serious problems. Nonetheless, it was a bit eerie in the street. 

                                                                       III

On the demonstrators/protesters/opposition:  Obviously, as had been made clear at every “G” event across the world, the opposition represents an important part of the proceedings. The argument that what is raised by the opposition is as important in the G-20 proceedings as anything else certainly has some credence. In this sense, I suggested the idea that it would behoove those who organize the Summit to invite delegates from the demonstration/protest/opposition side to the proceedings. This would serve to get that side involved in a participatory process, help diffuse their sense of alienation, and allow for G-20 participants to interact with them. I’m not sure of the idea’s future, but it did draw a few encouraging nods. In any event, as someone concerned with all aspects of the G-20 (and the problems in the world), I did my best to stay informed on the agenda of the G-20 opposition.

     I attended several meetings sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, which helped framed the objections and assisted with the organizing of the various demonstrations and the march on the most significant day of the Summit. I participated in the march, albeit only for a short part of the walk. There were not a large number of people in the march, about on scale with Pittsburgh, and it was well-organized, peaceful and meaningful. It is interesting to note that although most of the people had been at the issues for years and/or decades, they had varying views on the G-20 itself. The views seemed to hinge on interpretations of capitalism:  whether capitalism needed to be completely done away with, or altered to a form where its application would be more socially acceptable.

     For many then, their opposition was pointed at the problems they felt were part of the main G-20 players’ own doing. In other words, the problems connected to war, poverty, unemployment, poor health care, and the environment remain tied to the same capitalist processes that the G-20 players actually support. For these protesters then, the G-20 was a sham, representing nothing more than “business as usual.” It could not speak to the issues in ways that would really satisfy the problems, as the G-20 members were more a part of the problem, rather than the solution.           

     For others, however, the G-20 itself was a valuable concept. Bringing decision makers from all over the world together over the economic crisis was of significant import. However, for these protesters, the countries participating needed to focus more on the social problems existent in the world, over and above stimulating economies for economic growth. In other words, their protest seemed directed at altering the current mode of capitalism with more with more significant emphasis on social concerns than the G-20 seemed to be giving.

     For others, there was also a concern that the social problems were not be adequately prioritized, but this was tied to the fact that the G-20 was leaving out the less developed countries in their proceedings. For them, both developed and undeveloped countries needed to be involved in the proceedings, and the lack of this happening represented the lack of concern for the depth of the social problems at hand. In this sense, pushing for the inclusion of the undeveloped countries would in turn bring about more concern for the social ills plaguing many of the world’s economies. (I spoke with two of these “include more countries and more issues protestors” who were inside the G-20. They were from London and seemed to take on a more professional approach both with their attire and demeanor than the protestors in the street. One of them said that their network of protesting in Europe was more sophisticated than what had been organized in Pittsburgh, and they thought their points at this venue could be better tended to by handing out flyers within the G-20 and talking with people. I’m not sure to what extent they were effective, or whether I personally liked them, but their presence did lend support to the idea of officially including the “opposition” in the G-20 proceedings.)

      In sum, much of what I saw and heard reminded me of the issues and actions tied to the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, and the callings of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. From the concerns of violence and non-violence, to the logistical planning, to the difficulty of getting permits to organize the demonstrations, to the energy over the issues themselves, it was  inspiring to see the tradition of protest remaining active and worthwhile. As conditions in the world demonstrate, the struggle between our economic and social mandates continues, and there is more than enough room for improvement. Clearly there needs to be as many voices heard as possible in untangling what our collective future holds.   

               

IV

On the content of discussion, briefings and conversations:  “Capital, capital, capital” was how one French diplomat put it as I listened to his interview with Reuters news.  And that seemed to sum up much of what the G-20 was about. Debates on whether to continue with stimulation, how much would be enough, who should control the flow, who should get what and under what conditions, and when to exit from that type strategy, dominated the discussions. Like that same Frenchman said, “the devil is in the details.” And of course, this pointed to the intricate work involved at the G-20 proceedings.

     The Frenchman’s statement was applicable to another theme I found not quite missing, but not highlighted as much as its significance would merit. In short, the devil of the proceedings existed not really, or not only, in the details, but also at a more macro level concern – the ideological struggle that seemed to hang over the entire G-20 process. It is a struggle that could be referenced as a contest between established western capitalism, a system dominated by U.S. interests, and eastern capitalism, one being developed with China at its center. Importantly, the existence of such a struggle makes compromise and/or agreement within the G-20 proceedings appear on shaky ground. (I could only surmise that this is why, at least for public consumption, so little consideration was given to this point.)

     In essence, it is fair to ask to what extent China, with the most rapidly growing power in the world, will immerse itself in the “fixing” of the western, predominantly American version of capitalism, over promoting its own model. As western capitalism is at the center of the economic problems in the world, and with the U.S., its core player, mired in Middle East conflict, it is not difficult to understand the nature of this query. Add to this that China has its eye focused on developing countries, particularly those in Africa, which represent vast numbers of producers and consumers in addition to their own Chinese population. (Consider the Russian and Indian populations in this mix as well.) Again, would they prefer to rely on a model that is in serious jeopardy or promote one consistent with their own interests? (Another intriguing question could be to which wagon, the West or East, might the European Union, which also has its agenda, ultimately tie its horses?)

     My conversations, particularly with several of the Chinese delegates, and ‘listenings,’ including the briefings of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, did little to dispel the notion that China will do whatever is best for China. Moreover, in the speech of Chinese President H.E. Hu Jintao, it was clear that this is China’s mandate. In addition, Jintao stressed that China considers itself more a developing country than a developed one, particularly since it has been only since the 1970’s that China has shaken off ties to the Russian model it adhered to for several decades.

     It is important to note that this “developing more than developed” line of reasoning opens China’s strategies to those countries generally outside of the G-20. In fact, China has lobbied the G-20 for more countries to be included in the process. In this sense, it is not hard to imagine that China will continue to make investment efforts in the west, but more as a hedge to buttress its own developments in other parts of the world.  (As an example of both their ‘hedging’, as well as their range of power, take into consideration their large investment in America’s Treasury bills.)

    In sum, it is not difficult to argue that China, along with other countries that will benefit accordingly, is tying its hopes for the prosperity of the world to a new model of capitalism, with more of a socialist/communist/populist/Confucian oriented base than has ever been seen. It is a model actually foreign to U.S. political and economic interests, and, moreover, it may be beyond our cultural abilities to understand its properties. In the end of course, this situation serves to pit one system against the other, underscoring the concern of actual long-term, G-20 accord.

     The Chinese delegates I spoke with stressed that China has no real interest in “universalizing” its model, it is more interested in taking care of the needs of China. In that light, I posed the idea that as China moves in the direction of assisting the less developed countries of the world, it will, by logic of the producers and consumers involved, spread its version of capitalism (not necessarily by force or war mind you), while at the same time taking care of itself. This was in fact similar to the course followed by post World War II America, to some degree of success.

     My Chinese discussion-mates found this proposition most interesting. They did respond that I might be applying too much western logic in my image, that it implied a capitalistic, expansionist manipulation not really consistent with Chinese character and sentiment.  As a rejoinder, I noted that current business dealings with the Chinese might indicate otherwise, many see the Chinese business person as ruthless in character. Moreover, I stressed that, given my American heritage, my notions are centered on cultural instincts developed in the most advanced capitalist system in the world, and that they should not be easily dismissed by others moving more toward capitalism. After all, Americans had the call of democracy in their hearts at the country’s inception. Yet, given the situation in today’s world, this is often hard to recall. With these points in mind, they found my ‘expansionist’ proposition more worthy of consideration.

     It was important to emphasize that none of my questioning or proposing was directed at the value of what China may do. In other words, what might be developed by China should not be considered in a negative light. The logic of their policies and their concern for developing a more socially sophisticated model than what the west has produced might be a positive – the world may be a better place for what ensues. Even in light of the human rights and environmental concerns in China this might eventually be the case. (The Chinese, particularly in the context of their being a “developing country,” like to remind Americans of their own struggle with these issues throughout the 20th century.)  But one could imagine that for many in the U.S., this would not be the feeling. They may see any move toward another way of doing business as an assault on America’s political and economic domain, a threat to our existing power. And this again frames a major concern relative to the success of the overall G-20 proceedings. (As an addendum to this concern, consider the international currency-modification discussions engaged in by countries like China, Russia and Brazil, as well as the advance of an Islamic financial model as an alternative to what is currently in use. The context of these considerations, with the devaluing of the predominantly American dollar exchange in sight, also points to issues centered on the balance of power in the world. This too has a significant bearing on the nature of G-20 outcomes.)

* * *

AT END: For the most part, this is what I took away from the G-20. It was interesting and informative on every level, and as you can tell, the West versus East notion seemed most intriguing to me. I would offer that all of us, across all countries and populations, need to know more about each other. No one can argue that a better grasp of how the world works is essential for our collective future. Let’s hope we never lose sight of this, and that we continue to grow accordingly.

 

Jim Palombo can be contacted at ragazine.politics@gmail.com