Failure of G20 could raise the threat of war

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 March, 2009, 12:00am

The origins of the second world war lie in the failure of the global powers to agree on an economic system in which all could share fairly and fully.

That's what the Japanese claimed when they said that the 'ABCD' nations - America, Britain, China and the Dutch - had conspired to cut off the oil on which Japan relied to fuel its mighty military and industrial machine.

Protectionist tendencies no doubt had a great deal to do with igniting the second world war in the Pacific and Europe after a global economic leaders' meeting in London in the early 1930s failed to agree on a viable modus vivendi.

It's easy to blame depression and then protectionism of one sort or another for the world's troubles. No doubt they were factors, though Japan's aggressive imperialism and Nazi Germany's conquest of much of Europe, along with the mass extermination of Jews and members of other ethnic groups, would seem to go far beyond such simplistic explanations about the breakdown of the world economic order.

With this background of tragedy in mind, however, leaders of the Group of 20, the world's 20 leading economic powers, converge on London next week to try to thrash out the problems. It will be US President Barack Obama's debut on the world stage, and it promises to be significant even if the whole show devolves into a talkfest in which nothing gets solved.

In fact, if the G20 breaks up with closing statements that only paper over the world's economic problems, historians forever after will be tempted to look back on the session as a turning point - that is a turning point for the worse.

The relationship between economic troubles and war is always close, if sometimes indefinable. Storm clouds loom over northeast Asia as North Korea prepares to launch a Taepodong-2 missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead as far as the west coast of the US. North Korea already has an array of short- and mid-range missiles that can inundate all of South Korea and most of Japan.

The tensions may very well worsen, and the threats of war become harshly real, if the global leaders are unable to deal effectively with economic crisis, or near-crisis. Just think of the desperation that might drive leaders in such disparate, large powers as China, Russia and Japan, all of which have enormous stakes and long, sinister histories on the Korean peninsula, to compete again militarily in the region.

Leaders of the G20 have a chance to stave off the nightmare of war in northeast Asia and elsewhere if they will come to agreements that recognise the need to accommodate everyone's problems and resolve to reduce protectionism.

Those are easy words to write or say. The danger is that they will choose another form of protectionism, the protective coating of flowery statements and speeches, and then go home to formulate policies in defence of their own narrow interests and no one else's.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals