Thursday 12 March 2009

Missing: the politics of the G20

Gordon Brown is being warned not to expect too much of the G20. But a different challenge could and should be put: I don’t think the government has begun to develop a public politics of the G20 yet, or the broader internationalism which needs to follow from it.

The vital point is that a summit action plan of coordinated action on the global economy, while essential, is not the same as a public, political argument.

I felt that Paul Hilder of the global civic advocacy movement Avaaz made a good contribution from the floor at last night’s Fabian debate. What was missing he suggested was a clear public, political narrative about the crisis and the response which was needed.

The crisis response had been dominated by firefighting and national self-interest: that exerted a powerful undertow, and the momentum to counteract this would need to be considerable, if it were to produce delivery and actions which were equal to the task, and if the disastrous effect on the developing world was to be countered too.

Hilder’s most important point was that this could be achieved only if the new internationalism was not just an elite project, but a global social project.

At present, this is an elite project. Civic society groups are waking up to the issue – and the potential of the London summit as one initial focal point – as with the Put People First coalition which will march on March 28th ahead of the London summit, and other initiatives. But it is striking too how much the famous movement politics of the United States remains domestically focused: having spent several years wishing for a more multilaterally engaged US, it has not managed to use its voices to engage US progressive constituencies in the emerging global politics.

Much of this is more prominent in public discussion in Britain than elsewhere. And yet, for all the effort that the UK government is putting into facilitating the coordinated and multilateral response from governments that is needed, I do not think there has been an attempt to yet begin here the type of public political argument that is needed.

There are difficulties and tensions here. The nature of multilateral diplomacy means focusing on the detailed and narrow negotiations needed to move twenty governments into coordinated action. And there are dangers if that is seen to be inflected by domestic politics. And yet governments are currently running to catch up with the scale of the crisis and what is needed.

So the warnings that the London summit needed to be one step in a journey were well taken. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen noted that Bretton Woods had taken three years to prepare and ten to sixteen weeks to negotiate.

But this is not a moment to talk down the scale of the challenge or the response needed over time, and which the London summit can help to kickstart. And it must be the moment to not just explain how the world has changed, but to argue for the changes we want; and to engage progressive constituencies in the need to mobilise to ensure that it does now change.

Nor should this just be a job for the Prime Minister. The political argument needs to come from several voices in the government. And we heard some of it from Ed Miliband at January’s Fabian conference. He told us that a thirty era had closed – and that “the script was now unwritten”. This was an important argument, as far as it went. This must now be the moment to begin writing the new script.

So President Obama’s first trip to Europe must be used to make a clear public argument that calls time on the Reagan-Thatcher era, at a time when the international debate is taking place within essentially centre-left premises. (Anybody who doubts this should pay more attention to the Financial Times’ excellent series on the challenges facing capitalism; including Martin Wolf’s opening article on ‘another God that failed’ in the financially-led model of the last two decades).

As Rasmussen noted, the root of the failure is that the lessons of national experience about the need to govern markets were not applied at the international level.

The challenge now is not just to critique what has gone wrong – but to provide the framework for the new economics and new internationalism we need. And it is worth remembering that the traditional mission of both US liberalism and European social democracy has been, through governance and regulation, to make an effective capitalism possible and socially legitimate – to save capitalism from its worst excesses and advocates, not to overthrow it. Now, that means bringing together the issues of a social market, the environment, global development – and the new global institutions and politics which can make it possible. The difficult challenge is how we work out and campaign for the reformed capitalism that we need.

The challenge of the night was not just to get informed, but to get mobilised too. Rasmussen invited people to the Global Progressive Forum, taking place in Brussels on the weekend of the G20.

The challenge of the London summit must be about more than the global economy. It must be about the new international politics we need to create too.

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