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Economic summit has little chance of success

World leaders are heading for a clash of expectations at this weekend's summit on the global economic crisis.
Brazil Meltdown G20
Officials from 20 nations met in Brazil on Saturday to lay groundwork for the summit.Marcos Issa / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

World leaders are heading for a clash of expectations at this weekend's summit on the global economic crisis.

Europeans are looking urgently for broad changes and tighter universal banking regulations. With two months left in office, President Bush isn't ready to go nearly that far.

And there's a limit to what he could deliver anyway, given his lame-duck status, since other leaders might be hesitant to make deals with a departing administration.

President-elect Obama, the leader who soon will assume the job of trying to keep the U.S. economy from capsizing, won't even be at the table.

Saturday's 20-nation gathering will include leaders of the Group of Eight big industrial democracies — the U.S., Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Russia, Canada and Italy — as well as other major economies, including China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, currently president of the European Union, has emphasized urgency, saying "We are in an economic crisis. ... We have to react and we have no time to lose."

Bush convened the emergency session after receiving heavy pressure from Sarkozy during a meeting last month at Camp David, Md. It is to be the first of a series of such gatherings to map out a coordinated response to the world's worst financial crisis in decades, one that began with losses in U.S. housing markets and quickly spread overseas.

Bush resisted Sarkozy's appeals that the summit be held in New York, and he diluted the influence of Europe by making it a 20-nation session instead of just the Group of Eight.

The summit offers Bush what may be a last chance on the world stage to move beyond a legacy of war emergencies and bank bailouts by helping to launch what he called a possible new framework for "democratic capitalism." But he warned that it should not come at the expense of "free markets, free enterprise and free trade."

Different leaders bring to the meeting different perspectives and expectations.

"That's the dangerous part in trying to achieve a common agenda. They'll try to push their own perceptions of what a global architecture should look like and who should be the dominant players," said Charles Freeman, a former Bush administration trade official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

"I'm not sure that even an Obama team wants to see the United States' style and method of capitalism and financial markets converted. We value our flexibility here, and I don't think we're willing to capitulate to as much regulation as the Europeans are suggesting, particularly the French."

Stakes are high for the summit, even if chances for real progress are tenuous. With international investors already spooked, any perceived failure at the summit could send world markets tumbling anew.

Sarkozy and other European leaders are proposing an early warning system to watch for imbalances in financial markets. They also want an expanded role for the International Monetary Fund as the world's financial watchdog, improved supervision of financial players and action to close loopholes that let some institutions avoid regulation.

"We need monetary and fiscal policy coordination across the world," said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in outlining his own broad proposals for the summit to address. Among other suggestions, he wants China to use its nearly $2 trillion in reserves to help top up an IMF emergency loan program.

But China indicated on Tuesday that its focus is on its own economy. Beijing unveiled what amounted to a $586 billion two-year economic stimulus package that includes more spending on construction, tax cuts and social programs in China — but no mention of efforts abroad to lift other economies out of the ditch.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing's priority is to "put our own house in order" and ensure domestic stability. "I believe this is the most effective contribution China can make to tackling this financial crisis. It will help to maintain the sound and steady development of the world economy," said the spokesman, Qin Gang.

Russia, meanwhile, doesn't want to expand the IMF's powers as European leaders propose. Instead, Moscow wants the IMF's role reduced to make way for entirely new international financial institutions. Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin on Monday called the IMF inadequate as a crisis manager.

Amid high-flying but dueling rhetoric, prospects for major breakthroughs at the summit seem scant.

"To reach an agreement on exchange rates, bank regulation and trade policy, the principal participants have to agree on both the goals and the means. And the banking systems just vary too much for there to be a common systems of regulations," said Peter Morici, former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission and now an economics professor at the University of Maryland.

"What we can expect to see come out of this is some sort of nice statement about the need for stimulus packages and for more cooperation, but nothing substantive beyond that they're all going to do their best to reflate their economies," Morici said.

The meeting will be marked not only by who is attending, but by who is not. "When the 20 heads of state come here for the economic summit, they don't want to talk to Bush. They want to talk with Obama or with his surrogates," said American University political scientist James Thurber.

Obama adviser Robert Gibbs said Obama is interested in the meeting and thinks it is a good idea. But, said Gibbs, "there's only one president at a time, and we will stay up to date and briefed on what's going on but will not be a participant."

That also keeps Obama from being tarnished by a less-than-successful summit or from having a hand in proposed solutions that don't pan out.