Out to lunch
Hands up anyone who thought that there was going to be a dramatic announcement at the Group of 20 summit. I hope that you are now feeling satisfied. It should have been obvious as soon as the schedule of proceedings was released that nothing more than vague promises were in the offing. The best we could have expected was for everyone to show up, compliment the host and go home with a prominent place in mind to display the happy snaps.
Four hours and 35 minutes is not much, after all, to save the world. That was all that was left for the leaders after time for breakfast, lunch and the celebratory banquet was taken out. They most likely chatted away during meal times, of course, but we will never know exactly how much was spent talking about fiscal stimulus and how much about the quality of superstar chef Jamie Oliver's Welsh lamb and vegetables. Whether this amounted to quality negotiating time is a matter of interpretation.
World leaders are busy people, of course. In the days when the Group of Seven most industrialised nations mattered, it was a big deal to have so many presidents and prime ministers in one place, making momentous decisions. It's a pity that none of those agreements ever amounted to much. What hope, then, is there with almost three times that number, some of whom are not especially crazy about one another?
Regardless, just showing up in London was necessary. The agenda was about reshaping the global financial and trading system to get us out of the hole that it put us in. For leaders - most of whom need a sprinkling of fairy dust to alter perceptions that they should not be in their positions because they got us all where we are today - there was another good reason to show up: US President Barack Obama. His aura of being 'The Man' has not lost its gleam, despite hiccups with cabinet appointments. A summit photo with the man of the moment is a public relations coup not to be missed.
Pop star presidents aside, the financial crisis has the world's economy on the brink of implosion. Teams of officials are on the case, but it is at the leader level that over-arching agreements must be made. It is a shame that they could find so little time for so important a problem.
More summits will be held. A mechanism to deal with the global economy is in place like none before. Only time will tell how successful yesterday's gathering and its communiqu?will be. But, for a guide, let's consider the effort put into previous world-shaping summits.
The UN financial and monetary summit in 1944 known as the Bretton Woods conference put in place the global financial system we are watching crumble. Delegates from 44 second world war allies showed up. They took three weeks to lay down the foundations of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
Considerably less successful were two predecessor meetings: the London World Monetary and Economic Conference of 1933, held under strikingly similar financial circumstances to that of the G20 meeting, and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles. The former collapsed in acrimony between Britain and France against US nationalism after five days, while the latter took six months to come up with an agreement so flawed that the Great Depression and another world war resulted.
Roll back, then, to the great success of international diplomacy, the Congress of Vienna. It was held in another age, when the world was more malleable, less complicated and the ambassadors participating had time on their hands to do things their way. What they put in place after the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars lasted a full century. They took from September 1814 to June 1815 to redraw Europe as they saw fit.
Time is not necessarily of the essence to strike good deals. Co-operation and a will to make agreements work are more important. It is clear, though, that as far as the G20 is concerned, more time, not less, would be preferable.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post