What should be the US priority at the G-20 meeting this month?

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)

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Regardless of what our priority should be, it is abundantly clear that most of the nations attending will be focused on the escalating euro crisis and its current and prospective impact on the global economy.  On the surface, this seems highly appropriate since the G-20 was initially set up as a periodic meeting of national finance ministers and central bank governors to discuss matters pertaining to the international financial system and to promote a strong global economy.  Such an agenda will suit “candidate” Obama and his political colleagues and allies fine, as history strongly suggests that the outcome of this fall’s election will be heavily influenced by the actual and perceived state of our economy and its near term outlook.  There is no question that the worsening economic situation in Europe can do further damage to our pathetically anemic economic recovery and thereby diminish the President’s chances for re election.  For a variety of reasons, however, I don’t believe that the euro crisis should be our top priority as we approach this week’s meetings in Los Cabos.  There are at least two other issues, Iranian nuclear weapons activities and the escalating humanitarian disaster in Syria, which also deserve serious attention from the attending nations.  With heads of governments now frequently in attendance at G-20 meetings, the agenda has been generally broadened to include geo-political issues beyond just specific economic considerations.

One of the primary reasons that I’d advocate less U.S. focus or advocacy on the euro crisis is that there is effectively very little that we can do to fix or meaningfully improve the situation in Europe.  We have made it very clear to all that other than some modest accommodations by the Fed, we are not prepared/able to offer substantial financial assistance to help bail out the struggling economies of southern Europe.  Unless we are willing  to contribute significant additional funds to the IMF or purchase massive amounts of European sovereign debt, both of which are clear non starters, we can only encourage and cajole from the sidelines  the Europeans to get their house in order.  Since we don’t have our own financial house in order and are considered by at least some nations to have precipitated the current economic crisis, we have very limited credibility.  The critical decisions will be made in Berlin and a few other European capitals, including Brussels, not in Washington or at U.N. headquarters in New York.  Trying to play an important role in fixing the euro crisis under these circumstances would be another example of trying to “lead from behind,” an oxymoronic statement in and of itself.  We should focus our attention on issues where our leadership can make a difference.

There is clearly and appropriately no shortage of concern on the part of many attending nations with regard to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria.  U.N. efforts have failed and there is little reason to believe that Arab nations are prepared to provide leadership towards a solution.  There is also little indication, unfortunately, that the Russians are prepared to cooperate in any meaningful way on a solution that would include an exit by their long time ally Assad.  We may have a “reset” in our relationship with Russia, but doing the right thing on Syria isn’t going to be an outgrowth of any such revised relationship.  While many, if not most, of the key players who could design and implement a plausible solution for Syria will be present, unless we are prepared to provide real leadership with these relevant parties, it makes little sense to make this our top priority.

Thus my conclusion, in part by process of elimination, is that our top priority for the Summit should be encouraging more support, particularly from Russia and China, but also from other large customers for Iranian oil such as India, to help ramp up the economic and political pressure on Iran and halt their race towards weapons-grade uranium.  This is an area and an issue where the U.S. has demonstrated strong leadership, including from this administration, and where we thus have the credibility to help forge a solution.  A nuclear Iran is not in anyone’s selfish best interest, including Russia and China, and so let’s pull out all the stops in trying to persuade the attendees at the G-20 that we may be only a modest amount of demonstrated resolve away from solving a problem that arguably has more dire consequences for global tranquility than any other single factor.  We need to remove any lingering doubt on the part of all attendees that we will do whatever is required, including military intervention, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability.  Let’s shore up our credibility with attending nations on this subject and aggressively use our persuasive powers on an issue where we have a track record of leadership and an opportunity to make a difference.

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