Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Three months ago, at the G-20 summit in London, President Obama and other world leaders promised a collective effort to promote a global economic recovery. Everyone pledged to keep markets open and avoid protectionist measures.
The U.S. and Japan pushed successfully for internationally coordinated spending programs to stimulate world demand. European governments got the U.S. and others to support more international regulation, in order to limit risky investments like those that nearly wrecked the world economy.
Many of those leaders have now gathered in L'Aquila, Italy, for a summit of the Group of Eight, comprising the seven leading western democracies plus Russia. At the top of the agenda will be a review of the commitments they made in London.
"On whole, the outcome has been good," says Fred Bergsten, director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics. "More is going to be needed, particularly to prevent future crises. But I think the world's countries get at least a strong 'B' to date."
That is a pretty good grade considering how much bickering there's been among G-8 governments.
The World Trade Organization warns that protectionism is growing, not decreasing. European leaders still want more regulatory changes. Officials in Washington complained that the Europeans are leaving it to the U.S. to stimulate a global recovery, and not doing enough spending on their own.
The U.S. does seem to be making more progress toward economic recovery, but the Europeans are more cautious about building up a lot of government debt.
Kenneth Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, defends the European view.
"These financial recessions are not your typical recession that just lasts for six to nine months," says Rogoff, who is now a Harvard economics professor. "These are three to four year events and you have to have a longer run vision. I think the European response has been reasonable."
Rogoff says the Obama administration has been "overly critical" of the European government stimulus programs.
For their part, the European leaders who want more economic regulation — German Chancellor Angela Merkl, for example — are disappointed that governments are so far enacting reforms on their own, without much international coordination or supervision.
The Peterson Institute's Fred Bergsten says it's unrealistic to expect much in the way of new international economic rules on any issue, because they couldn't be enforced.
"What you try to do is set out international best practices that everyone can agree upon," Bergsten says. "Then you name and shame those who do not shape up."
For example, when the U.S. Congress initially inserted "Buy America" provisions in the stimulus bill, there was an international outcry, and Obama got the provisions weakened.
Bergsten says the same "name and shame" approach worked in France, when President Sarkozy introduced his program to rescue the French auto industry. "It created howls of protest from other European Union countries." Sarkozy backed off and took out lots of the protectionist elements.
In that regard, there will be a new initiative at this week's G-8 meeting. Italy is proposing a voluntary "global standard" for business ethics. Countries that don't live up to it could be "named and shamed."
Another area where governments are sure to be shamed is over their commitment to Africa. In 2005, the G-8 countries promised to increase aid to Africa by a total of $25 billion by 2010. That deadline is just one year away, and the goal is not being met.
"We're very disappointed, particularly with countries that promised and then delivered very little," says Tom Hart, government relations director for the global advocacy organization ONE.
A new report by the group shows that while some countries, including the U.S., Canada and Britain are close to meeting their Africa aid commitments, others are not. Italy, the G-8 host, has so far come through on just 3 percent of what it promised.
"We think that these promises were made in good faith," Hart says. "There's something very baseline about making a commitment to the most vulnerable people on the planet and then not delivering on them."
Aid for Africa will be the main summit topic on Friday.
The G-8 leaders this week will also work on a common commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There could be discussion about reviving world trade talks and even about the role of the U.S. dollar in the global economy. New sanctions on Iran could be considered in the aftermath of the disputed election results there.
Professor Rogoff says the L'Aquila G-8 meeting could turn out to be more interesting than previous summits, most of which featured a lot of talk but little action. "It's an extraordinary historical moment that could have greater significance than the usual G-8 meeting," Rogoff says.
Actually, it's not just the G-8. About 20 other world leaders will be on hand for the summit to join in the consultations.
Notably absent will be Chinese President Hu Jintao. He flew to Italy but then turned around and headed home to deal with the current unrest in his country.