It is hard now to recall the mood of hope, even euphoria, that was kindled when Gordon Brown secured the G20 summit for London (and then spoiled it by mis-speaking about saving the world). But now, as the first leaders start to arrive, and the capital braces itself for gridlock, expectations are being comprehensively talked down.
This may be a gathering of 19 national leaders and the EU President, and these 20 may represent countries that between them account for 90 per cent of the global economy, but the chances that they will actually decide to do anything useful are dismissed almost universally as remote. What was once dangled before us as a new Bretton Woods, intended to re-order the international financial system for the 21st century, now seems little more than an inconvenience to be overcome.
This is partly because of the disagreements that have emerged during preparations and the fear that the 20 will, at most, agree guidelines for future meetings. It is partly because of the ingrained cynicism of the public and the media towards national politicians, especially in the host country. But it is mostly because the problem is so all-encompassing and so intractable. When national leaders and central bankers start talking about "uncharted waters", what they mean is that we are facing the meltdown of the developed world's financial system. And none of the trillions of any currency thrown at it so far has had any perceptible effect.
That the waters are uncharted and the problem international and largely unforeseen, however, does not inevitably put a solution beyond the realm of politics. Even if together these 20 leaders cannot guarantee the best of outcomes, they can at least try to prevent the worst. Indeed, the graver the situation, you could argue, the heavier the responsibility to act together.
Comparisons have often been made with the period immediately after the Second World War and, even more gloomily, with the Wall Street Crash. In the latter case, it is argued, world leaders proved unequal to the task – largely because they were too timid and because they put their national interest first. Their inability to coordinate a response brought the Great Depression, which in turn fed fascism in Europe and... Well, the rest is history.
There are other glosses that can be put on the world's response to the failure of the market of the late 1920s. Not everyone accepts that protectionism was the culprit it is presented as today. Some believe that Franklin Roosevelt's "New Deal" made the depression longer than it would otherwise have been. Such challenges to orthodoxy are welcome. But it is difficult to argue that, until FDR came along, national leaders were anywhere near the top of their game.
We do, though, have an example, within many people's living memory, of a clutch of national leaders who probably did make a difference at a crucial juncture in history. This was between 1987 and 1992, when communism collapsed across Europe. And if the decisions those leaders took then did not foster the very best of outcomes, they surely averted consequences that could have been much, much worse.
The fall of communism was, as we remember 20 years on, a joyous time for many; a liberation that few had dreamt would be theirs. But for national leaders, including those on the "winning" side, it was also a period fraught with peril– for each nation and for the continent as a whole. Seemingly ironclad regimes crumpled overnight. Borders thought immutable since Yalta suddenly came back into play. Countries split up (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union), and dramatically came together (East and West Germany), when the Berlin Wall fell.
These were "uncharted waters" indeed. There was widespread disruption of almost every kind. But the civil war that progressively engulfed Yugoslavia as it split – the resumption of a war, truth to tell, that Tito had only temporarily arrested – proved the exception. There were nasty, vicious episodes that included the violent overthrow of the Ceausescus in Romania. there were skirmishes in the Baltic states and the resurrection of old quarrels in the margins of the disintegrating Soviet Union – some of which remain unresolved to this day.
But the two potentially most explosive changes – the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union – came about peacefully, by negotiation and mutual consent. And this was largely thanks to the efforts of half a dozen leaders: Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev above all, but also Boris Yeltsin, the first President George Bush, John Major and Francois Mitterrand. They somehow understood what the end result had to be and, sometimes inexpertly but always calmly, set out to make it happen.
The process was expensive and not without mis-steps. West Germany underwrote the withdrawal and resettlement of Soviet troops in Russia. Agreement to exchange East for West German marks one for one, was economically questionable, but politically unimpeachable. The US and EU were ready with supplies and an emergency refugee plan, should millions of Russians cross into Finland. There were contingencies in case rogue elements of the Soviet military mounted an armed, even nuclear-armed, resistance.
In the event, probably the hardest task was to square German unification with a fearful and weakened Russia; but it was done. Bringing a peaceful end to the Cold War was a mostly successful and, to this day, hugely underestimated achievement. It was possible because Gorbachev and Kohl in their own ways accepted the inevitable. It was possible because all involved understood their historic responsibility and were terrified of what might happen if they failed. But it was also possible because this group of mostly grey and at times plodding individuals put ego aside and worked together.
Today's more doctrinaire and flamboyant leaders might find it more difficult to sublimate their personality. But the chief difference between then and now is less the individuals than the conspicuous lack – so far – of any higher common purpose. Unless they can look beyond the immediate need to stabilise the present system, neither the status of the participants nor the London backdrop will be enough to enshrine this British summit in history.Reuse content