As world leaders gathered in Los Cabos at the tip of the Baja California peninsula this week, they did so behind a monumental wall of security. Thousands of Mexican federal police and military personnel in heavily armed patrol cars cruised the tourist corridor connecting the twin resort towns of Cabo San Lucas and San José de Cabos; there were dozens of checkpoints through which both pedestrians and vehicles must pass; and the Convention Center in which the Group of 20 nations' summit played out is an impenetrable fortress for all but the specially accredited.
It is always thus at big world summit meetings, and the G-20 is no exception. So far, these comprehensive lockdowns have successfully kept heads of state out of harm's way since the summits began in Washington in 2008. But in securing themselves inside their conference chambers, governments have also put up a barrier to block out the people they claim to represent. Inside the aptly named "exclusion zone" -- the area that lies within a security perimeter lined with barricades and riot police and which often encompasses the relevant city's entire downtown area -- an eerie silence will prevail as vendors shut up shop and locals leave town to avoid the inconvenience. Accredited members of the press will be allowed into selected areas but will spend most of their time in a cavernous, warehouse-like structure refashioned as "the international media center," a frustrating arrangement that leaves journalists' physically detached from the attending leaders and their staff. They might as well watch the proceedings on C-SPAN.
But in terms of keeping the peace outside the security perimeter, the G-20 summits' track record is far from stellar. At Pittsburgh in September 2009, thousands of protesting anarchists smashed windows and threw rocks at riot police, who responded with tear gas. Nine months later, an even bigger melee stunned genteel Toronto, where 900 were arrested after rioters set fire to two patrol cars and smashed multiple storefronts. The Canadian government, taking a lesson from Pittsburgh, had spared no expense on summit security and had effectively turned downtown Toronto into a militarized zone. Perhaps this impressive array of firepower backfired. Maybe it gave the excitable crowd a target against which to vent its anger.
These clashes reflect more than the failure of the local police to contain a mob of testosterone-fired youths. They are a manifestation of the widespread public discontent with the dismal and unstable state of the world economy and of a profound and worrying loss of confidence in the capacity of policymakers to improve it. It's no coincidence that the only riots that Western countries experience these days -- save for the occasional hockey riot -- occur at these gatherings, where the world's governments gather with the goal of mending a dysfunctional global economic system but come away with little more than empty phrases of shared intent. And by putting up a wall of firepower to protect themselves, they accentuate the physical and symbolic divide that lies between them and an increasingly skeptical public.
You don't need to see people in the streets with Molotov cocktails to understand that public trust in governments is breaking down. It is playing out more broadly in voting booths. This is especially so in the crisis-wracked countries of Europe, where a commonly held view is that the now embattled euro was a project designed by and for elites with minimal public input. Witness the speed with which parties from the extreme left and right sprung out of nowhere in Greece and almost garnered enough of the vote in Sunday's election to render that beleaguered country ungovernable.
Yet the phenomenon of voter rebellion, and the challenge this poses for establishment parties, is also present in what were previously thought to be stable democracies. Governments have fallen or struggled to form majorities in Australia, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, and many other countries. Anti-immigrant, euro-skeptic parties have found renewed prominence in France and Finland. And comedians-turned-politicians have tapped a powerful protest vote to claim electoral victories in Iceland and Germany. In the United States, the Tea Party has diluted the Republican old guard's control over the GOP and all but destroyed what was left of bipartisanship in Washington.
In the Middle East, popular uprisings have led to the overthrow of corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia and have challenged them in various countries on the Arabian Peninsula and, most recently, in Syria. Meanwhile, the global Occupy Wall Street movement has given voice to people's frustrations over a uniquely Western form of power corruption: the control that large financial institutions wield over government policymaking. One of the more cynical reasons why protesters perceive the barricade-protected G-20 leaders to be cut off from the people they represent is because they sense that politicians' loyalties are captured by deep-pocketed Wall Street donors.