French President Nicolas Sarkozy promised an "ambitious and humble" year as leader of the Group of 20 rich and developing economies, and he has a lot to be humble about.
Despite a warning earlier this year from Christine Lagarde _ then his finance minister, now IMF chief _ that a failure to address global imbalances would "lead us straight into the wall of another debt crisis," that is exactly where the G-20 has wound up.
Now the finance ministers and central bankers gathering for two days of talks here beginning Friday must explain how they let the global economy run straight towards the edge of a clearly marked cliff _ and what they can still do to stop it from falling over it.
It was only last February, when the mandarins of finance last met in Paris, that U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said "The global economy _ by almost every measure _ is in the best shape it's been in at any time in the last two or three years."
"I think there is justifiable, growing confidence," he said.
Finance officials from Brazil, India, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere will now be treated to the spectacle of their European counterparts promising to do "whatever it takes" to avert a collapse of the common euro currency.
European leaders have asked for more time to figure out how they'll achieve that. Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel now say such a plan will be ready before the G-20 leaders' summit in Cannes in early November, possibly by the time of an EU summit Oct. 23.
That will be too late to give finance ministers and central bankers meeting in Paris something substantial to announce. An official at the French Finance Ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, in fact appeared to characterize this weekend's meeting as just prep for the EU summit.
Sarkozy saw the danger of inaction last March, and pledged to avoid it. In March at a summit in Nanjing, China, he said that "now that the crisis is past" it was imperative that leaders press on with reforms or else "the world will slide inexorably back into instability and crisis."
That foresight was unmatched by execution, however, and the consequences for the global economy are painful _ Europe's sovereign debt crisis threatens to plunge the world back into a recession that some predict could be worse than that of 2008.
It all looked so different last November, when Sarkozy took the mantle of G-20 leadership at a summit hosted by last year's president, South Korea. Then, Sarkozy said France's ambition was for "everyone to accept to sit down at the table to set up the basis for a new system that will guarantee the world's stability."
The French Finance official contended that that stability _ "strong, sustainable, and balanced growth," in the G-20's formula _ was still the overall objective. It's just that Europe first needs to dig itself out of its debt mess before it think about growth.
Sarkozy's main failing as the moderator of the G-20 has been an inability to overcome huge disagreements, both within the EU and globally.
At some point, taking a leading role on the global stage must have seemed like a plum position for Sarkozy to be in as he heads into a fresh presidential election battle in 2012. Yet as his record-low approval ratings show, he hasn't proven capable of transforming that role into any positive impact in the polls.
Now, instead of focusing on the setting up "yardsticks" to measure "global imbalances" that G-20 finance ministers once assured the world would be the way to avoid a crisis, officials will discuss Europe's debt crisis, which has rolled on relentlessly for nearly two years.
The decision to postpone a European leaders meeting to Oct. 23, and Sarkozy's and Merkel's pledge to have Europe's house in order by the end of the month, succeeded in one thing: lowering expectations for this weekend's G-20 meeting.
Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report.
Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg_Keller
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