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A helpful guide to saving the world

Opinion: Here's what to look for as the rich and powerful meet in London.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) laughs with Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (C) and Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in east London April 2, 2009. (Livio Anticoli/Italian Prime Minister's Press Office/Reuters)

NEW YORK — As the leaders of the Group of 20 major industrial nations gather for their much anticipated summit April 2 in London, President Barack Obama and his senior economic aides have taken great pains to prepare the ground for unity.

Gone is the carping about the fact that France and Germany, for instance, have done little in the way of stimulus spending. Muted, too, was the reaction to the statement of the governor of China's central bank suggesting the U.S. dollar's days at the world's "reserve currency" were numbered. (Read more about the German perspective.)

The United States has been upfront about its goals for this summit from the start. As the featured guest at most major summits since the end of World War II, the U.S. presumably has learned something about expectations: Specifically, if you set modest goals and promise little, you generally can declare success as long as the summit doesn't collapse in disarray.

But if the U.S. generally has been able to practice message management at previous gatherings of the Group of Eight (G8), or even APEC, NATO and the Organization of American States, Washington may be in for a nasty surprise this time.

The G20 includes many members only now getting their first crack at the big table in the economic conversation. The downturn is affecting some of them grievously, others less so. A handful of countries feel, as America does, that urgency and unity must be the message from London. Others, newly empowered by recent economic growth, want a broader agenda and old wrongs righted. And a few even smell blood — American blood, that is — and hope they can turn an economic catastrophe born in the USA into a New New World Order.

But first, a look at the invitation list. The G-20 includes all the Group of Seven countries (the U.S., France, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom), plus Russia, which was added to form the Group of Eight (G8) in the late 1990s as a sop to the late Boris Yeltsin.

Additionally, in alphabetical order, the G20 includes Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea and Turkey, plus the European Union.

Why these particular countries? It’s a common question (especially in Spanish, Dutch and in Taiwan's dialect of Mandarin, since Spain, the Netherlands, and Taiwan all are ranked by the International Monetary Fund in the top 20 in terms of GDP).

They lose out — in the interest of geographic balance — to Saudi Arabia (22), Argentina (23) and South Africa (25). (For those interested in the accounting, Wikipedia has a great page comparing IMF, World Bank and CIA rankings).

Even without the cooked membership rolls, the G20 is an institution poorly suited to the task ahead of it, whether you agree with the American agenda (keep it simple, exude confidence, avoid protectionism, but spend like a drunken sailor) or more ambitious agendas (put a lid on capitalist excesses once and for all, rethink America's dominance of the IMF, World Bank and other financial levers).