The Land of Too Many Summits

Considering how often they meet, Latin American leaders get surprisingly little done.

With President Barack Obama traveling to Cartagena, Colombia, for the Sixth Summit of the Americas on April 14, observers and journalists are already asking what his administration has done in the region since the last such meeting in Trinidad and Tobago in 2009. It's a good question, but the vague and inconsequential resolutions reached at these summits are a lousy metric to use.

If the number of summits were a measure of the quality of diplomacy, Latin America would be a utopia of harmony, cooperation, and understanding. Indeed, the Western Hemisphere has a strong claim to the title of summit capital of the world with, at last count, more than 16 regional multilateral fora, associations, and organizations. They include the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), the Ibero-American Summit, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), as well as the old timer on the bloc(k), the oft-maligned Organization of American States (OAS), not to mention its new regional challenger, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).

Of course, the real business of diplomacy and dealmaking occurs in smaller gatherings of countries or bilaterally between governments that have a genuine unity of purpose and national interests. These smaller meetings -- not the pomp and platitudes from the seemingly unending summit meetings of heads of state jetting around for a photo op -- define the real relations (and interests) in the hemisphere.

Granted, Obama's participation in these summits provides a convenient milestone for examining his administration's Latin America policy. In April 2009, just three months after his inauguration and still in the midst of the global swoon over his election, Obama traveled to the 2009 Fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to meet with all the elected heads of state in the region. Now, facing re-election three years later, Obama returns not only to a more economically and diplomatically muscular region but also to the usual whining from regional pundits and journalists that the United States doesn't pay enough attention to it.  

That might be a fair charge in general, but the president could be forgiven for not taking gatherings like this weekend's very seriously. The truth is that there are few areas of practical, common interest that align the 34 states participating in the Summit of the Americas other than geographic proximity. The original summit in Miami in 1994 was convened to unite the elected heads of state in the region to discuss two pressing topics: trade and democracy. On the former subject, the goal was to create a hemisphere-wide trade agreement, a dream that faded long ago. And the latter all too often gets sidetracked by distracting skirmishes like Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa's decision this year to boycott the summit because Cuba has not been invited.

The deterioration of American summitry into a platform for easy demagoguery over serious discussion first became evident at the fourth summit, held in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in October 2005. It was there that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and then-leader of the Bolivian coca growers union -- and soon to be president -- Evo Morales, with support of the host, then-President Nestor Kirchner, staged an "alternative" summit at a nearby soccer stadium. Alongside soccer legend Diego Maradona, oddly, the group denounced free trade, genetically modified foods, U.S. drug policy, and yanqui imperialism in general.

That these Latin leftist leaders were only an obnoxious minority at the meeting didn't seem to matter. Even though most of the other countries assembled there repeated their commitment to free trade and democracy, it was Chávez's three-ring circus that became the story of the summit. The most fitting punctuation mark to the pomp and populism was when U.S. President George W. Bush jetted off afterward for a working meeting with Brazilian President Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva, at which the Texas conservative and the leftist former labor leader struck a common chord and agreed to collaborate on a series of initiatives, including reducing barriers to trade.

Regional division -- rather than points of agreement -- was again at the center of discussion at the 2009 Summit in Trinidad and Tobago. In the lead-up to Obama's first major foray into Latin American diplomacy, many hoped that the power of his presence could help heal old wounds. After Obama gave a powerful speech about not re-living past battles and history and about starting a new era of partnership, Chávez sidled up to the U.S. president and gave him a copy of a book by the hoariest of Latin American conspiracy theorists -- Eduardo Galeano, who wrote the classic screed against the developed world's exploitation and the region's victimhood, Open Veins of Latin America, read by every undergraduate student of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. Unsurprisingly, that became the story.

Can anyone remember to what the countries committed at the summit or whether they followed through? I follow Latin American politics for a living, and I can't.

Aside from the questionable import of vicinity and the attenuated links of democratically elected governments, are these high-level, broad-scale events really worth the investment in bureaucratic resources, the president's time, and the media's attention? To be sure, by hosting this year's event, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia will be able to showcase how far his country has advanced since the civil wars that brought Colombia to the brink of state failure only 20 years ago. But did he need to convene a meeting of 34 heads of state to do that?

When you think of summits in other regions, they all have a certain economic or strategic logic, which lends itself to a more concrete agenda. Whether it's the G-20, the European Union, or APEC, these groups' regular meetings of heads of state discuss economic and diplomatic interests that they can advance, and affect. Precisely because these member countries are united by a common interest and these are seen as serious meetings, the above-mentioned summits would never fall victim to the sort of antics and hollow symbolism that have marked the last two Americas Summits. (Admittedly, there have been the embarrassing moments of heads of state performing unfunny skits at the Association of South East Asian Nation meetings and the thankfully ended custom of appearing in the local garb of the host of the APEC Summit, but those were clearly never the main intent or takeaway, thank God.) Ironically, this year's host has been the country that has best recognized the importance of bilateral bridge-building over pretentious, forced, grip-and-grin multilateral fora. With a newly signed free-trade agreement with the United States and Santos's blizzard of diplomatic trips, bilateral trade deals, and improved relations with neighbors (including Cuba, despite the summit snub), Colombia has become a regional model for how to get things done.

Another example occurred in late March with Obama's meetings with President Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, at which the three leaders jointly committed to streamlining regulations to strengthen trade ties, boosting security ties, and supporting entry of Mexico into the U.S.-led negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc with Australia, Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Even the tensions evident in their speeches between President Calderón and Obama over U.S. drug policy and its unwillingness to press for a new assault weapons ban are signs of constructive, mature relations between two countries with a common purpose.

A similar counterpoint occurred earlier this week when Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff traveled to Washington. On the agenda was how the two countries can facilitate commercial investments, expand educational exchanges, and improve energy ties. Given the prickliness of the Brazilian government toward the United States, it was no surprise that no concrete bilateral agreements came out of the discussions. But these points of discussion are far more concrete and actionable than the festive, two-day regional president hug fest that will take place this weekend.

Could the Obama administration have paid more attention to the region in the three years between the summit in Trinidad and Tobago and the one in Cartagena? Sure. But the measure of what it should have done is on the content. The administration should have long ago coordinated regional support for security in Central America, a region being overrun and outgunned by criminal syndicates; it should have accelerated its efforts to create a trans-regional economic bloc to challenge China's encroachment into the hemisphere; and it should already be working intensively with neighboring countries to help ensure free and fair elections in Venezuela, regardless of the outcome.

These are the real issues that matter to the Western Hemisphere's future. But none of them came out of the last summit.



The G-20 Is Failing

World leaders said they'd reform the world's financial institutions in the wake of the Great Recession, but they haven't met their commitments. We all may pay the price.

The leaders of the G-20 countries have played a crucial role in rescuing the world from the brink of economic and financial disaster. They agreed to an impressive agenda in Washington in November 2008, and at their April 2009 London summit committed themselves to an integrated strategy to rescue the world economy from the brink of depression, to reform international financial regulation, and to transform the governance of the world's most important global financial institutions.

But now the G-20's accomplishments are in danger of unraveling, because these countries have failed to implement their agreements on reform of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These reforms would enhance the role of the emerging market and developing countries, and help to cement the commitment of those countries to the global system. A failure now would produce multiple black eyes for the G-20 and represent a setback for the still-precarious world economy.

The challenge for the G-20 is to live up to its subsequent pledge in Seoul in November 2010 to implement a two-step reform of the IMF's governance. The first step would double IMF quota subscriptions, which are the core financial resources the IMF uses to lend to other members. Although this step would not significantly increase the overall financial resources of the IMF due to offsetting reductions elsewhere, it would modestly redistribute voting power away from the advanced countries and toward fast-growing emerging market and developing countries.

In addition, the Seoul agreement included the adoption of an amendment to the IMF charter that would redistribute seats on the IMF's executive board away from Europe. The G-20 leaders promised that this combined first step would be implemented by mid-October of this year, when the IMF's annual meeting will be held in Tokyo.

The second step agreed to in Seoul called for a revision of the formula used to adjust IMF quota shares by January 2013. This revision would be followed by a substantial increase in IMF quota subscriptions and overall financial resources by January 2014. This also promises to further increase the IMF voting power of emerging and developing countries, which was a key to winning their agreement to the overall reform package. Many of those same countries are now being called by the Europeans and by IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to temporarily lend to the IMF to protect Europe and the rest of the world from an escalation of the European sovereign debt crisis. One would think they would be more inclined to heed those calls if prospects for the reforms' implementation were better.

Unfortunately, and potentially tragically, the G-20 countries have dropped the ball on implementing the IMF governance reforms. Although October is still months away, it now looks like the Seoul commitments will not be met on the original timetable. None of the elements of the first step in the Seoul agreement can be implemented unless they all receive the necessary approvals. The crucial element is the amendment of the IMF charter: It requires acceptance by 60 percent of member countries (113 of 187) that also hold 85 percent of total IMF votes, which are weighted according to IMF quotas.

As of April 5, only 66 members with 46 percent of the votes had accepted the amendment. Crucially for the credibility of the G-20, only nine of the 19 core members of the G-20 have acted positively. The 10 missing G-20 countries have 36 percent of the votes in the IMF, 3 percent short of the remaining 40 percent needed to pass the amendment.

The United States, which has the largest IMF quota, is one of the major culprits behind the delay. Implementing the first step in the Seoul agreement requires formal approval by the United States because it holds 16.7 percent of the votes. But the Obama administration has declined to submit the necessary legislation to Congress, apparently fearing that doing so would ignite a fiscal battle that it does not want in an election year.

This lack of U.S. leadership is distressing, and at odds to the role the United States played in London three years ago. But it's not only the United States that has failed to act: The list of G-20 countries that have failed to embrace these necessary reforms includes two other advanced countries -- Canada and Germany -- and seven emerging market countries -- Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey.

The foot-dragging on the part of Mexico -- the current chair of the G-20 -- is indicative of a lack of G-20 commitment to IMF reform. The presence of Russia and South Africa is also ironic as they are members of the BRICS -- the group of developing economies that at its summit last month in India called for implementing the IMF reforms on the agreed timetable. Each G-20 country has its own reasons for delay, but at present the sum total is a colossal failure in G-20 leadership.

What should happen? Most importantly, the United States and the other G-20 countries should meet their international commitments by passing the IMF reforms on the agreed-upon schedule.

Because of the political season, there is a good chance that the United States will only consider acting after the election, in a lame-duck session of Congress. However, this alternative should not be in play unless enough of the rest of the G-20 countries has acted, or will act, by the end of the year. The reason is that a lack of progress on the first step in the Seoul package has delayed progress on the second step -- and will continue to do so. The U.S. administration has little to gain from spending its scarce political capital on a controversial issue unless it has a reasonable assurance that the complete two-step IMF reform package is back on track.

An attractive alternative would be to restart the process in early 2013. The G-20 countries and the rest of the IMF membership could then focus on reaching agreement on the new quota formula and on a substantial, permanent increase in IMF quota resources -- which the European crisis has demonstrated are needed -- by January 2014. The two steps in the original Seoul agreement would be combined, and the United States and other laggard countries would be able to submit the package in its entirety to their national approval processes. This would allow the G-20 countries to catch up with their original timetable.

What is not acceptable, however, is for countries to allow these important reforms to remain in limbo indefinitely. A failure to do what is necessary will put the global economy and financial system at risk by starving the IMF of resources and sidelining it as the principal institution of the global economic and financial cooperation. This time, if there is another crisis, the G-20 countries would have only themselves to blame.