Hubris of global summits

Rajkamal Rao | Updated on December 04, 2018

Positive outcomes are a rarity at such meets

The global summit calendar is packed: The G20 and the UN General Assembly, bringing together the world’s leaders, were both held in a space of two months. Both followed the G7 and Euro summits in June, and the NATO summit in July. And coming up in January, many will gather again at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

What exactly do these meetings achieve? Does anyone even remember what the communique of any of these events said? Who measures progress against what was agreed to in these communiques?

This is what the strange rules-based world order has morphed into. At the G20, 22,000 local police officers helped provide security to the 20 leaders. Millions of hours are spent planning every minute detail of diplomacy, including the order in which the leaders pose for photographs. To what avail, pray?

The world’s leaders have had a terrible record negotiating positive outcomes even in bilateral meetings because benefits to one country are often at the expense of another. The US and China cannot agree on solutions to a bitter trade dispute beyond a 90-day freeze on future tariffs. In such a zero-sum game environment, how could 20 nations agree on anything at all?

True, not every challenge is a zero-sum game. Some issues, such as climate change, migration, and terrorism — affect all nations. But devising common solutions is almost impossible because there’s such a diversity of views and approaches. Defenders say that agreements from these summits are the result of the trust between leaders who see value in a hug or a handshake to cement long-term relationships between nations. But more than half of the current leaders will likely not be chief executives of their countries in 2022 when India will host the summit.

So agreements are hammered out and inked after hundreds of thousands of hours of careful negotiation among countless officials and are by design, complex and inflexible making change nearly impossible. Two-and-a-half years after the UK voted to exit the Eurozone, the parties have barely moved the needle. Brexit opponents have exploited every arcane rule to leave the UK interminably connected to EU rules and regulations, an idea which was anathema to the Leave leaders.

And there’s the question of incompetence. Greece went amok with highly irresponsible financial decisions that brought the mighty Euro to the brink because Greece knew that EU rules, again arrived at after such summits, would protect bad behaviour. After a whopping $330-billion aid and write-off package, Greece still struggles with massive unemployment and anaemic growth.

Our leaders have been wrong about practically every major decision arrived at summit meetings in the last 20 years. The Iraq war was a mega disaster. The world hopelessly bungled opportunities from the Arab Spring. Today, proxy wars in Syria and Yemen continue killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and dislodging millions. The Afghan war continues on, 17 years after US fighter planes began to bomb the Taliban.

If any of the rest of us had made such irresponsible decisions in our jobs, we would have been fired (and possibly jailed) long ago. This, knowing that the decisions we make in business and industry rarely impact life or limb.

Yet we labour on and celebrate the hubris of our leaders as though they are all knowing. We really ought not to blame them. The shame is on us because we pay attention instead of simply turning things off.

The writer is Managing Director, Rao Advisors LLC, US

Published on December 04, 2018

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