It took the newly inaugurated President Obama only 69 days to place a big diplomatic and economic bet on an untested world organization that even he acknowledged might not be able to agree on much of anything. With job losses mounting and consumer confidence plummeting, the president arrived in London at in March 2009 to attend his first G-20 summit and prove that this relatively untested grouping of wildly disparate nations spread across six continents could come together to meet the economic crisis sweeping the world. When the summit concluded two days later with an agreement to infuse more than $1 trillion into the world economy and to crack down on tax havens and hedge funds, a relieved Obama declared that the G-20 had provided the "turning point in our pursuit of global economic recovery."
Three years later, as the president prepares to leave this weekend for the G-20 summit in Las Cabos, Mexico, at the tip of the Baja California peninsula, it is worth recalling the risks he took in placing his faith so completely in the G-20. And it is worth noting that some of his early worries about the difficulties in finding consensus have proven prescient.
Obama did not create the G-20 — President Clinton did at the finance-minister level in 1999. And he did not call the first G-20 leaders' summit — President Bush did in November 2008 as the depth of the economic crisis was becoming evident. But Obama did make this fledging grouping of 19 countries and the European Union the official, go-to world body for American diplomacy on economic matters, a fundamental shift from almost four decades of U.S. policy giving top ranking to the G-7 (and later the G-8) group of industrialized democracies. His choice looked sound when 2009 summits in London, Toronto, and Pittsburgh were effective and focused. However, once the economic crisis began to abate and more countries could see signs of recovery, later summits in Seoul in 2010 and Cannes, France, in 2011 were less cohesive and much less productive.