Americans are under the quaint, even vaguely poignant illusion that they will actually elect a president next year. But, of course, the voting that will determine who leads the United States from 2013 onward will take place not in the United States but in Europe, in China, and in a handful of other distant locations. As a consequence, this week's G-20 meeting in Cannes, France, should be viewed as an even earlier and more influential caucus than the ones taking place in Iowa. And upcoming meetings among eurozone finance ministers, the U.S.-EU summit in late November, the EU summit on Dec. 9, and the just-announced Greek referendum -- which will likely come in January -- should all be seen as key primaries.
These summits and votes will offer all the circus-sideshow color that U.S. voters have come to expect from their own primaries. (Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi will someday have tragicomic operas produced about him -- that is certain.) That Republican front-runner Herman Cain may not know where they are taking place or why does not diminish their importance or the attention Americans should be paying to what is going on. Because should Europe's top officials -- one really can't call them leaders, given their resolute resistance to doing anything like leading -- fail to stop an economic meltdown on that continent, the consequences, from global banking crisis to worldwide economic slowdown, will be so severe that they would virtually ensure Barack Obama's loss in next year's elections.
There is no current risk to the well-being of the United States so great as a disorderly, protracted financial crisis continuing throughout the year ahead. It would crush recovery, push unemployment back up, reintroduce the risk of recession, and, worst of all, likely produce a series of bank failures that would crush markets and retirement accounts and force the U.S. government to choose between a new series of bailouts and sitting on the sidelines watching the country sink into what could be a decade-long slump.
For this reason -- and because the political consequences of such a slump are so grim for their president -- Americans have no priority greater than working with the Europeans to find a plan that will result not just in defusing the Greek debt time bomb but will also head off even graver crises in Italy, Spain, France, and the European banking system. As Helene Cooper notes in her story "A Silver Lining to America's Waning Influence" in today's New York Times, helping to engineer such an outcome won't be easy for the president, given the real and perceived limits on U.S. influence these days. But Obama and his team, led by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, have been working this issue intensely. The president himself has participated in a variety of sometimes fractious exchanges with European leaders via telephone and video conference. Geithner has forcefully allied himself with new IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde in seeking to goad the Europeans into action. And the Europeans have made some, albeit fitful, progress, each step forward sadly being undone by a large lurch backward, as was the case during the past week when Greek bailout euphoria was quickly squashed by the Greek prime minister's sudden, badly orchestrated decision to put the deal to a popular vote in his country.
But the new reality for the United States is it can't bully anyone into action or make problems go away with a sweep of its check-writing pen. Nor, for that matter, can the Chinese, despite the size of their reserves. The Europeans will have to play a central role, and the rest of the world's leading countries will have to collaborate. Indeed, a central irony to this entire crisis is that though it looks like a debate about how tightly linked European countries wish to be, it is actually a demonstration that virtually all the world's countries are already linked far more tightly than any electorate would willingly approve in a national referendum. The markets have engineered the integration without benefit of public consultation, and it is now up to people everywhere to pay into this system of someone else's devising -- one which serves the interests of global bankers rather better than it seems to those of average citizens, lofty rhetoric about rising tides aside. (While rising tides may lift all boats, those without boats are left to sink or swim.)
Given this new collective reality, all eyes naturally turn to the G-20. The question is, can they do anything other than large photo-ops, vigorous but superficial discussions, and crafting more or less meaningless communiqués? To help them in a more productive direction, here's a list of 20 things the G-20 could have done or should do to help get us out of this mess:
1. They could have met earlier and more often. For long stretches, this year the rest of the world seemed to be buying the Euros' assertions that they had everything under control.