15 OCTOBER 2009


One day after making their speeches at the U.N. General Debate in New York, 20 heads of state left to another "summit" in Pittsburgh on the financial crisis. The host in particular had to rush because he wanted to properly conclude a Security Council over which he was presiding. Although a routine monthly rotation, it was the first Council meeting chaired by a U.S. President and President Obama sought to give that moment its due. He was also duly considerate of U.S. politics, and being late to Pittsburgh would have negative repercussions in the State of Pennsylvania.

Of course, a U.N. veteran's first question is: why did they have to leave U.N. Headquarters in New York to discuss an issue within the framework of U.N. responsibilities? They were all already in the building; indeed many of them were already assembled at the Security Council chambers. Only the Saudi King was not there, and he didn't go to Pittsburgh either.

In a first time ever, the Secretary General himself left with them.

It never happened before that the Secretary General left in the first days of the General Debate. Ban Ki-moon could have suggested staying in New York, but most likely he just went along, perhaps because he had no specific plan in hand. Although the U.N. system is load with Departments, Funds and Programs dealing with economic and financial issues, the main problem -- as we repeatedly pointed out -- is that we have to have real leaders in that field. Everyone is playing politics and no one seemed to handle the pressing world crisis. That's why despite our esteemed Secretary General's frequent flying to attend all those crisis summits, he has been -- very regrettably -- relegated to the sidelines, with a rare exception of a desperately sought photo opportunity. He is undercut by the lack of considered realistic proposals where the U.N. could play a pivotal role. The net result was a subsidiary arrangement for the International Monetary Fund, which -- again -- could have played a more substantial role.

Nothing much came out of Pittsburgh except disproportionate hot air. An official communique described the meeting as historic. The wildest claim came from one of the most practical participants. Gordon Brown claimed that the old systems of economic cooperation are over, new systems from today forward have begun.

Nada, of course, began. It transpired that the new G-20 "framework" is expected to work along the same stages of already embellished practice: 1. Agreement on priorities in future summits; 2. Reporting by countries concerned of how their national policies matched those agreed priorities; and 3. The IMF would evaluate the extent of adherence to ensure that domestic plans met with international guidelines. That's it.

The only addition is more of a P.R. nature. A threat to "name and shame" -- a selective and unlikely threat in several influential cases.

On that we were reminded by The Financial Times of an analogy by the Bank of England's Governor, Mervyn King, where he explained that the role of international bodies these days could not be like soccer football referees brandishing yellow and red cards, but should be like cricket umpires cautioning players verbally against rough tactics and publicly pointing out those "not abiding by the spirit of the game."

Yet, when British Prime Minister Brown was asked by the press whether his government will adhere to G-20 recommendations, he did not respond. Similarly, other leaders did not seem to be aware of "the spirit of cricket." The global financial crisis had placed them all in a sticky wicket!