Winston Churchill once whipsawed a main political rival by saying that he was "a modest man, but then he has so much to be modest about." The same could be said about May's Camp David G8. In the past, a major meeting of the U.S. and its major allies at a time of turbulence -- especially one hosted by a U.S. president in an election year with the add-one of a NATO summit -- would have generated intense interest. Yet the G8 generated an image of only extreme modesty.
Any sense that the G8 constitutes the apex of global decision-making is long gone. Although economic governance issues moved to the forefront of discussions, all this did was to confirm the lack of operational relevance for the forum. And if the absence of Russia's Vladimir Putin made the summit look more like a caucus, this translated into an image of "agree to disagree," not a site of creative like-mindedness.
Although Germany took centre stage as the G8's determined resister on the growth agenda, there was no appetite by the U.S. or Canada for any new ambitious bailout plan for the Eurozone beyond EU self-help. Furthermore, the move to connect the Camp David G8 with the Chicago NATO summit did little to contradict the impression of extreme modesty in the security arena. Notwithstanding a long list of demands for action (from Afghanistan to possible forceful responses to the violence in Syria), the supply of deliverables was notably limited.
Nor, it needs to be mentioned, is the G8 the hub of global networking anymore. Through the span of the more memorable G8s -- especially Gleneagles in 2005 and Heiligendamm in 2007 -- there was a combination of things that made them special: big promises on development/health, the presence of emergent big countries (albeit in an outreach capacity), big demonstrations and the presence of some big celebrities such as Bono and Youssou N'Dour. None of these were featured at Camp David. To be sure, President Obama did bring out a "New Alliance to increase Food and Nutrition Security" but even this initiative was more notable for the shift away from state-based activity to private partnership with 45 major corporations.
Although the lack of demonstrations (and appearances by celebrities) of course can be viewed as a blessing, such absences do play into a symbolic narrative of decline. This view is exaggerated further by the shift of not only the BRICS but smaller countries to other forms of engagement with the old establishment countries. Whereas the G8 aimed to find a comfort zone in its core membership, the G20 sees values in wider consultation -- with the invitation of five "special guests" (Spain, Chile, Colombia, Benin and Cambodia) to the Los Cabos summit on June 18 and 19.
Mexico, like South Korea when it hosted the G20 in November 2010, has a huge incentive to go beyond an extremely modest outcome for Los Cabos. There is also some greater momentum for a commitment to a growth agenda inside the G20. They range from President Obama's desire to twin an economic surge with his own re-election, to the support of this approach by Mario Monti, Italy's technocratic prime minister, to the recent pronouncement that Australia would support China in advocating growth at the G20.
Good planning by the host country and momentum for growth, however, could meet dual storms at the time of Los Cabos. One of these storms is the political shock from the Greek general elections -- particularly if it is one that features another strong result from Syria (recent polls suggest that anti-bailout coalition of the radical left is up to 30 per cent support). This happens on June 17, a day before the summit begins in Los Cabos. Will Greece act as a distraction -- as it did on the first day of the Cannes G20 summit in November 2011 -- or a catalyst for more concerted and robust forms of collective action?
And if there is not a Greek shock will there be a Spanish storm? As a very interesting Financial Times article (Richard Milne, "Fears grow over Spain as warning lights flash red", May 30) highlights, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal lasted just 12, 24 and 34 days after the premium they paid to borrow over Germany reached 500 basis points before seeking international help. Spain reached this 500 b.p. mark on May 28 so there is another formidable storm that could hit as early as Los Cabos.
Under such conditions, extreme modesty in terms of outcomes -- or an image of muddling along -- will undermine confidence in the G20. Shocks as we found out in 2008 and 2009 can concentrate activities and allow "hanging together" to take place at the new apex of global governance. Los Cabos could determine how resilient or strained this ethos is if new and hard to predict, but potentially extremely formidable, tests hit. Unlike the G8 it matters what the G20 does or doesn't do to meet these tests.