G-20 Summit Should Avoid Sideshows, Focus on Reforms

Posted September 17, 2009 at 10:37am

As a lifelong resident of Western Pennsylvania who has had the opportunity to participate officially in a variety of international conferences in the course of my Congressional career, I look forward to being in Pittsburgh next week during the G-20 summit with a mixture of pride, hope and foreboding.[IMGCAP(1)]My pride springs from the opportunity that the Greater Pittsburgh Community has been given to show off its impressive and fundamental transformation from the aging postwar industrial center, identified in the American consciousness as one of the cradles of American manufacturing — to the gleaming contemporary Steel City, with its vital mix of corporate headquarters representing classical titans (U.S. Steel, Alcoa, PPG Industries), international firms (Bayer), energy innovators (Westinghouse, Consol, Equitable Resources), cutting edge financial institutions (PNC, Federated Investors, Mellon), and new economy leaders (Confluence, 11-VI); its world class institutions (Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center); and its first-rate cultural assets, all in a visually striking urban setting. Pittsburgh’s transition is one of the great success stories in modern America and an achievement worthy of global imitation: a tribute to the vitality of American entrepreneurship and local civic leadership.It is a fitting stage for the drama of the G-20 summit, where the challenge of leading the global economy out of its worst upheaval since the Great Depression will be taken up. Pittsburgh’s community leaders have seen the gathering of world finance ministers and central bankers as a unique opportunity to recast the profile of their city, seeking to use the spotlight of international media coverage and the correspondence of opinion-makers to update its image.I hope they are successful. More so, I hope that those world leaders inside the David Lawrence Convention Center embrace a disciplined, realistic agenda that reassures global markets and serves as a catalyst for rekindling economic growth. The summit comes at a particularly sensitive time, as the world economy shows clear signs of revival. The Obama administration has a watershed opportunity to build an international consensus around a new set of reforms to strengthen the economic system. These should include a new framework for global financial regulation and oversight with common global accounting standards, and a more exacting code for corporate governance to promote greater transparency and accountability. The G-20 agenda should also put a premium on coordinating the expansionary policies of central banks and the inevitable unwinding of stimulus policies, to facilitate the return to steady economic growth.Unfortunately, this summit — like other international conferences I have attended — runs the risk of being distracted by sideshows. The G-20 leadership should avoid being bogged down by politically attractive but substantively dubious debates about micromanaging executive compensation or press-ganging “tax havens— (a perennial hobgoblin of finance ministry bureaucrats). Similarly, the international press corps should resist the urge to focus on the inevitable protests taking place outside the summit. The frequently raucous dissents registered by the institutionalized anti-globalization movement at the international conference are less germane to the real issues. The protesters (mostly from elsewhere) will doubtless attract disproportionate attention, but the real work of alleviating global property and protecting the rights of workers will be engaged in the convention center, not the streets. Having attended the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference in Seattle — another city whose host status was intended to showcase local civic achievement — I hope local officials are prepared to deal with the challenges of the summit protest carnival fairly and proactively.When the G-20 summit leaves Pittsburgh, world finance leaders need at minimum to have achieved two things.First, they need to have sent a positive, reassuring message to global institutions and investors: that they are prepared to continue working together to nudge the world economy forward. The appearance of mutual support and cooperation by heads of state, finance ministers and central bankers representing the world’s leading economies is a powerful tonic to public confidence and economic recovery.Second, they must renew their commitment to resist protectionist impulses. In the current economy, national leaders will continue to feel pressure to deal advantages to domestic producers. Indulging these temptations could be especially destructive to a budding recovery. Although G-20 nations pledged last November to swear off protectionist policies, the WTO has documented a steady pattern of backsliding by these countries. A renewed hardened commitment to open global trade and a rededication to avoidance of protectionist measures must be integral to the summit’s communiqué.The Pittsburgh G-20 summit is an opportunity for global economic statesmanship — if our leaders can seize it.Former Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) is senior government relations adviser for Arent Fox.