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).
The fact is, even those in synch with the Obama machine have their own interests.
Here's a helpful guide to the parochial questions the other 19 members of the G20 want answered:
Argentina, South Africa, Russia: Can we blame the U.S. for this mess and demand more power for ourselves?
The U.S. controls the selection of the presidents of both the IMF and the World Bank, and by virtue of its position as the largest donor, the budgets of both. The IMF is a four-letter word in Argentina, which was hurt badly in the late 1990s when, in exchange for IMF funds, Argentina had to swallow strict fiscal strictures. South Africa has demanded a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and sees its role as an advocate for all of Africa. Russia, meanwhile, is only too happy to blame the West for all the "advice" on banking it has received since the Soviet Union fell.
Australia, Japan, South Korea: Can we ride to health on China's infrastructure spending?
Australia's recent economic boom owes almost everything to Chinese companies that have invested heavily in its mining industries. Similarly, South Korean and Japanese export industries depend heavily on Chinese manufacturing, and they see anything that keeps China from ticking over as good for business.
Brazil: Can we demand reform without looking like we're on Team Chavez?
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has the credentials of a left-wing labor boss but has run a savvy double game against Washington and the loudmouth Venezuelan leader to his north. Lula embraced populism when it suits him, but Brazil's economic rise in the 1990s was built on a sober form of capitalism. His banks were run by the state, meaning he hasn't been hurt by the subprime disaster. But he still wants to be on Obama's good side.
India, Canada: Can we avoid protectionism?
The Canadian economy, while suffering a downturn, is faring relatively well due to its social safety net and lingering returns from oil during the recent price spike. The collapse of the U.S. auto industry has Canada worried, since many GM units are based on its territory. But mostly, it benefits enormously from NAFTA and free trade generally, and will want to see nothing that legitimizes the populist backlash to the crisis. India, meanwhile, will push for a greater say for developing nations. But more than anything, India wants its products to continue flowing tariff free, and its high tech workers granted visas in America.
France, Germany: Can we say no to Obama's stimulus demands?
Laid off German and French workers don't lose healthcare, and get unemployment benefits for a lot longer than their American counterparts. Put simply, the recession just doesn't hurt as much. But French moves to bail out Renault and other firms have some concerned about creeping protectionism.
Britain: Can I back away from this cliff I'm on?
The disastrous collapse of several British banks turned up the heat on Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who responded by raising expectations that the G20 meeting would not only deliver enormous, coordinated global stimulus spending, but also a plan for comprehensive global financial regulation. With neither likely, Brown is in a difficult spot and Britain's economy, arguably, is the worst hit of any.
Turkey, Indonesia: Can we recognize Islamic finance?
Islam forbids the charging of interest, and Islamic finance is gaining acceptance in commercial markets (London has been seeking to become the global center). Turkey and Indonesia may both push this agenda, though Turkey dislikes the word "Islamic" being applied to anything related to government.
EU: Can I say anything coherent? The European Union is profoundly divided, with Britain, Italy, Spain, Ireland and others in dire need of stimulating growth. But France, Germany and a few others are happy to ride it out. Pity the EU representative, whose job description requires speaking out of both sides of his mouth.
Michael Moran is executive editor of CFR.org, website of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Additional GlobalPost coverage of the G20: