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What's Loud, Unnecessary, and Costs $75 Million?
And now for a riddle: What is big, loud, unnecessary, and costs $75 million? No, not a retired elephant in a diamond-studded dress: The answer is, of course, a Group of 20 summit. These G20 meetings younger, chubbier cousins of the equally pointless G7 and G8 summits have been going on since 1999 in an under-the-radar kind of way but have lately taken on a new urgency. Indeed, the next one, which will be held in London on Thursday, is being widely billed as the summit that will save the international economic system, provoke a stock market rally, create lasting prosperity, and save the politicians present from the disgruntled voters protesting outside. And all this in a single day!
The truth, of course, is that nothing that will be discussed at the summit, and nothing that will be discussed at any of the follow-up summits, could not also have been discussed on the telephone. Or by e-mail. Or on a Skype conference call. Indeed, one British writer suggests that "the world's leaders should have followed their usual platitudes about looking to the future and engaging the young by holding the whole thing on Facebook."
But then, the purpose of this summit, like all such summits, is not really discussion. It is politics. From the hosts' point of view, the primary purpose is to rescue Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, whose popularity is at a record low. Brown spent the years between 1997 and 2007 serving as Britain's chancellor of the exchequer the equivalent of America's treasury secretary and thus cannot, like his American counterparts, blame Britain's financial crisis on the mistakes of the previous administration. He took credit for Britain's booming economy during those years and is thus being held responsible for Britain's unusually deep recession: For weeks now, the British press has been howling for him to "apologize." If nothing else, those official summit photographs Brown surrounded by the leaders of the United States, China, Russia, Argentina, etc., against the grim industrial background of London's Isle of Dogs will make him feel important again.
Others have different agendas, none of which entails much real discussion. The Obama administration, for example, hopes to use the summit as a tool to bludgeon the Germans and others into spending more money: They want each country present to commit 2 percent of its gross domestic product to a stimulus package, creating a sort of family support structure for the gazillion-dollar American stimulus package. This would, in theory, allow our president to go home and declare victory. And if it doesn't happen, at least he'll have a culprit when the international economy does not, in fact, fix itself within a month or two: It will all be the fault of the Europeans, who typical Continentals! dither, dissemble, and squabble among one another instead of rallying to the American call.
While I am usually the first to accuse the Europeans of dithering and dissembling, I have some sympathy for the Germans on this point. The reason they, the French, and many others in Europe the British are an exception have avoided spending large amounts of money on their economy is not because they are incompetent Continentals. It is because they do not think it will work. Strange though it may sound, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, are leaders who, for better or for worse, came to have some respect for what used to be called Anglo-American capitalism, with what used to be its reputation for fiscal conservatism. More to the point, they are also running up against the limits of what they can borrow and are worried about inflation as well.
This latter worry is even more acute in many smaller European countries, some of whom are actually cutting their budgets and introducing financial austerity packages as a result. Though these policies aren't popular now, their advocates might well be proved right in the end. There is an analogy here, albeit an unfortunate one, to the recent past. After Sept. 11, the Bush administration, instead of fixing al-Qaida, Afghanistan, and Pakistan for good, decided to invade Iraq. The Europeans balked and those who didn't, like the British, are now sorry. After the banking crisis, the Obama administration, instead of regulating the banking system and the mortgage market, decided to devise a massive stimulus package, build a lot of bridges, expand educational spending, and maybe fix health care, too. The Europeans are balking again. Will those who aren't, like the British, be sorry a few years from now?
At least if that happens, this week's G20 summit will take on a genuine importance. It won't be just another summit, producing another pile of documents, containing another bunch of euphemisms, but rather a turning point. It will be remembered forever as the moment when some of the rich world headed off in one direction and the rest headed off somewhere else. Which might mean it has been worth at least a portion of that $75 million.
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Gulag: A History
Nearly 30 million prisoners passed through the Soviet Union's labor camps in their more than 60 years of operation. This remarkable volume, the first fully documented history of the gulag, describes how, largely under Stalin's watch, a regulated, centralized system of prison labor-unprecedented in scope-gradually arose out of the chaos of the Russian Revolution. Fueled by waves of capricious arrests, this prison labor came to underpin the Soviet economy. JWR's Applebaum, a former Warsaw correspondent for the Economist and a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, draws on newly accessible Soviet archives as well as scores of camp memoirs and interviews with survivors to trace the gulag's origins and expansion Sales help fund JWR.
Comment on JWR contributor Anne Applebaum's column by clicking here.
03/03/09: European Disunion
02/24/09: Who cares what Hillary Clinton says to China's leaders about human rights?
02/17/09: Witless protection
02/10/09: Our Ticket Out of Afghanistan
01/27/09:Why some foreigners can't believe Obama won the presidency fair and square
01/20/09: A Flight Test for All of Us
01/14/09: Europe's New Cold War
01/07/09: Pointless Peace Proposals
12/30/08: The magnificent rhetorical legacy of the Founding Fathers
12/23/08: Do riots in Athens portend demonstrations in Paris and Cincinnati?
12/16/08: Breach of Trust: Bernard Madoff's massive fraud will cripple American capitalism
12/09/08: In praise of charismatic politicians
12/03/08: Moscow's Empire of Dust
11/20/08: Getting Past Mythmaking In Georgia
11/12/08: In Praise of Political Rock Stars
10/03/08: Election Day myths you must resist
09/30/08: Not just a metaphor: Lehman Brothers was economic's 9/11
09/04/08: Class of '64
08/28/08: Did Hillary really help the Barack cause?
08/27/08: Show of Power, Indeed
08/19/08: What Is Russia Afraid Of?
08/13/08: When China Starved
08/11/08: Two of the world's rising powers are strutting their stuff
08/05/08: How Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago changed the world
07/29/08:The Hour of Europe Tolls Again … But are European politicians up to the task?
07/15/08: Why Does Obama Want To Campaign in Berlin?
07/01/08: Citizen Athletes: How did a guy who can't speak Polish end up scoring Poland's only goal of Euro 2008?
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05/28/08: The Busiest Generation: America seems to value its children's status and achievements over their happiness
05/20/08: Leave Hitler Out of It: The craze for injecting the Nazis into political debate must end
05/13/08: A Drastic Remedy: The case for intervention in Burma
05/07/08: A Warning Shot From Moscow?
04/23/08: Radio to stay tuned to
04/17/08: China learns the price of a few weeks of global attention
04/01/08: Head scarves are potent political symbols
03/26/08: The Olympics are the perfect place for a protest
03/19/08: Could Tibet bring down modern China?
03/12/08: Have political autobiographies made us more susceptible to fake memoirs?
03/05/08: Why does Russia bother to hold elections?
02/20/08: Kosovo is a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences
02/06/08: A Craven Canterbury Tale
02/06/08: French prez' whirlwind romance reminds voters of his political recklessness
© 2008, Anne Applebaum