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G20 Pittsburgh: They meet again

Opinion: The world does not hold its breath.

LONDON, England — Why do political leaders do this: meet at the summit? Why do we write about it? Do you really care?

Back in early April, the last time the G20 met, I stopped off at Canary Wharf in London's new financial district to talk to merchant bankers and speculators about the meeting that was, in theory, supposed to result in measures to save the global financial system.

Many of the proposals were going to directly affect the income of these former masters of the universe. I chatted with a couple of men smoking a cigarette at Cabot Square West. One said: "It doesn't matter what they do. We'll find a way around it." His nicotine break partner added: "We're much smarter than they are."

That anecdote stayed with me as I sat sequestered in the press room of the Excel Centre a half mile from the room where U.S. President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and the other leaders sat seeking common ground, a process that is synonymous with doing the minimum. A group commitment to pumping up the global economy with a coordinated central bank infusion of money was agreed. But the critical decisions on regulation of financial markets and the reining in of banker/speculator pay was kicked aside and left for individual governments to address.

In the ensuing months, as the big decisions have languished and bonuses at investment banks have returned to pre-crisis levels, I keep thinking of those two guys at Canary Wharf. Sadly, they declined to give me their names. Braggarts are rarely brave and they were concerned about what the Boss might say if he saw them quoted by name. I wish they had told me, though. I'd love to call them up and tell them they were right.

Their words merely underscored the futility of summitry in this day and age. It is a dangerous thing to say but governments have never been weaker. In this age of globalization, they have no effective control over mechanisms of the economy, just as the bragging blokes boasted. In an age of asymmetric warfare, they have little control over foreign affairs. The U.S. can convene a summit following the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001 and get billions of dollars in aid pledged for reconstruction for the country. Meanwhile the Talibs lay low and wait patiently, after all it is their country, the foreigners will leave sometime. The international community provides only a fraction of the funds it promised and before you know it, the U.S. is fighting a war for Afghanistan again. For how many decades have great and formerly great powers been trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians together? Stop Iran building nukes?