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G20 in Los Cabos: A study of ineptitude

Analysis: The world is going to hell, from the economy to the environment. But don't worry, the leaders are on it.

Los cabos g20 blurredEnlarge
The heads of the G20 leading economies pose for a family photo at the convention center in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Sometimes the news cycle calls for an angry screed.

Now is one of those times.

Let's examine our collective plight.

Europe faces economic collapse as the euro crisis deepens, threatening to damage the rest of the increasingly fragile global economy.

Meanwhile, Chinese leaders can't seem to manage their political transition, the US is embroiled in yet another bitter and bipartisan presidential election campaign, while India's bumbling government seems incapable of managing the country's way onto the global scene.

And then there's talk of war between Israel and Iran, as well as the political unrest in Syria, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere across the Middle East.

Oh, and let's not forget that the planet is warming — with all the nasty human, environmental and economic consequences that will accompany this shift — yet every attempt to do something about it has been shot down by special interests and national politics.

As G20 leaders met in Los Cabos, Mexico this week to talk about Europe and the global economy, and then moved on to Rio to tackle climate change, it's hard to find much optimism.

Our friends at Foreign Policy share the feeling.

This smart David Rothkopf piece on the failures of mutilateralism comes with the home page headline: "G-Zeroes, why are the world's leaders such losers?"

It's a grimly humorous and very good question.

Here's how Rothkopf sums up the situation:

"Our problem is not that the biggest powers are incapable of action to address current problems. It's that just when the promise of a new post-Cold War, post-single-superpower era of collaboration among nations seemed to be greatest, many of the big powers have revealed themselves to be unwilling to assume the responsibilities of true global leadership — of motivating, cajoling, inspiring, intimidating, confronting or blocking actions by other powers. It's not so much that we are in a G-Zero world as it is that most of our leaders are zeroes."

Rothkopf's analysis is particularly true with regard to economic matters.

As evidence, let's examine the official G20 communique issued from Los Cabos on what these leaders plan to do about Europe — where the outcome of Sunday's election in Greece solved nothing — as well as their latest plans to fix the problems in the rest of the global economy.

As a public service, here's a sampling of what was said, bureaucratically speaking, with my translated comments below each G20 promise:

Since we last met, the global recovery has continued to face a number of challenges. Financial market tensions are high. External, fiscal and financial imbalances are still prevalent, having a major impact on growth and employment prospects and confidence. Clearly, the global economy remains vulnerable, with a negative impact on the everyday lives of people all over the world, affecting jobs, trade, development, and the environment.

Translation: Okay, it's bad out there. And, funny story, we're to blame. Our inability to regulate financial institutions, or to forge cooperation in Europe has largely created these crises and made them worse. Um, sorry about that.

We will work collectively to strengthen demand and restore confidence with a view to support growth and foster financial stability in order to create high quality jobs and opportunities for all of our citizens. We have agreed today on a coordinated Los Cabos Growth and Jobs Action Plan to achieve those goals.

Translation: Details? You want details? We're working on that.

Euro Area members of the G20 will take all necessary policy measures to safeguard the integrity and stability of the area, improve the functioning of financial markets and break the feedback loop between sovereigns and banks. We look forward to the Euro Area working in partnership with the next Greek government to ensure they remain on the path to reform and sustainability within the Euro Area.

Translation: In other words, we will do what Angela Merkel says.

With the Los Cabos G20 summit now thankfully over these leaders — well, some of them anyway — have moved on to rainy Rio de Janeiro to discuss climate change and what can be done about it.

Environmental activists, and plenty of others are already deriding the mass meeting as a pointless diplomatic mess:

"This summit could be over before it's started. World leaders arriving tonight must start afresh. Rio+20 should be a turning point," Oxfam spokesman Stephen Hale was quoted in Reuters. "There's no sign of that here. Almost a billion hungry people deserve better."

A billion hungry people do deserve better. So do the six billion other people who currently inhabit planet earth.

So, what's the problem?

Weak leaders, trying to operate weak institutions.

Here again, FP's Rothkopf hits the mark:

"The general sense of the drift away from the stronger multilateral institutions we so clearly need to manage our climate or regulate global markets or take on international threats like proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has been going on for months. The crisis in Europe has fed it. The lost hopes of the Arab Spring fed it. The fact that Libya was so deliberately sui generis and that Syria proved it has fed it. The U.S. hypocrisy in clinging to an antiquated system of choosing the next leaders of the IMF and the World Bank fed it. And the ineffectiveness of the ongoing nuclear negotiations with the Iranians has fed it."

Here's the bigger problem: When it comes to managing earth's problems, institutions have been pretty much the whole game, stretching all the way back to the end of World War II.

The World Bank and International Monetary Fund were designed to help rebuild and strengthen economies worldwide.

The United Nations was designed to bring countries together in a forum that would prevent large wars and other conflicts.

The European Union, and the countless institutions that have popped up around it, were designed to link the economies of Germany, France and the other former enemies of Western Europe in an attempt to foster peace through shared prosperity.

The G20 — and for that matter the Rio+20 and other multilateral mechanisms that hope to tackle climate change — are natural outgrowths of these global institutions.

And, for a while, these global institutions mostly worked, in part because they were designed to live beyond the people who were actually running them.

Like the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court in the United States, these institutions were structured to be long-lasting, if not permanent mechanisms for managing stuff.

In an increasingly globalized world we need these institutions to work.

We need clear rules of the game, and some way to make cooperation and compromise possible.

But the enormity of the challenges — from current economic problems around the world, to the very real political divisions in Europe, to seismic political and cultural shifts in the Middle East, to the heath, infrastructure and other challenges facing Africa and large parts of the developing world, to say nothing of large-scale environmental degradation that hangs, menacingly, over all of this — has overwhelmed these global institutions and the people selected to run them.

And, no, this is not a good thing.

So where do we go from here?

All ideas are welcome.

Just please don't put them in a communique.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/business/120620/g20-rio-20-study-ineptitude