A bit of the old world order dies
Here inside the Pittsburgh G20 Summit it feels like being there at the birth of a postmodernist medieval empire.
The leaders are cosseted somewhere; occasionally a politician pops out to answer questions he wants to answer; to journalists he wants to brief. The press sits here like a kind of giant global version of China's Xinhua news agency - "what is the great leader doing today?"
As I'm writing a woman from Eurovision has announced urgently, "Roll now! Camera spray of Russian delegation!" - causing 27 broadcasting technicians to hit the record button on a feed of pictures entirely controlled by the organisers, of a totally insignificant event.
We are protected by some of the most lethal force ever assembled. We saw the first use, as far as I can tell in any democratic country, of a sonic blaster. This can cause fatal aneurisms and damage your hearing.
In the Youtube footage of it firing a large number of people close to it are not rioters but cyclists and pedestrians.
Add to that the complete overlap of anti-terror and crowd-control policing, so that the whole city is silent except for sirens and the barking of police dogs, and you get a near complete dystopia.
What's being achieved here is significant - not for any specific policy but for the fact that the G20 will be turned into a permanent and "premier" body for managing the world economy.
The IMF will be reformed to allow greater representation for China - although there will be no specifics here because the Europeans who will lose their seats are wrangling about it.
The G20 will have a board and permanent apparatus. Given that the anti-globalisation left hates the IMF/World Bank, and the pro-market right has seen itself turfed out of IMF decision making as well, there will probably not be many mourners for the old system, where the G7 or G8 countries claimed decision making power and the IMF/WB were seen as extensions of US foreign policy.
However, we should probably consider what we are losing as tactical management of the world economy moves to an ad-hoc body like the G20.
Whatever the faults of the system put in place at Bretton Woods in 1944 it had two positive attributes. First it was created by democracies that had just defeated fascism and were now faced with a strengthened Stalinist bloc. Second, as the product of a Treaty, it had the power to sanction.
The IMF could and did instruct countries, famously including Britain, to get their public finances in order, and it could bail them out (Of course no-one is suggesting the IMF cannot do this in future, in fact it will be more flexible in its ability to do this because of reforms achieved so far.)
The G20, by contrast, has to work through consensus instead of sanction. And around the table, with a theoretically equal voice, are a giant Communist dictatorship (China); an undemocratic monarchy (Saudi Arabia) and a country whose banking system was bust eight years ago (Argentina) and an energy giant prone to holding small neighbours hostage over gas supplies (Russia).
Now the solidification of the G20 is only one moment in the long reform and reconstruction of the post-War economic order. But it's symbolic. Bit by bit the world is moving from an order based on treaty and formal sanction to one based on consensus, horse-trading and the diffusion of power.
If you think the move from G8 to G20 is irrelevant consider this: last year, when Russia clashed with Georgia, there was talk of the west suspending Russia's membership of the G8 in reprisal. If the world economic order is, in future, to be guaranteed by consensus - what are the chances of 19 governments getting together to suspend or expel a miscreant? Zero - unless globalisation begins to fall apart and countries opt for overt protectionism.
We're finding - in economics as well as diplomacy - that multilateralism is a grubby business: you scrap your missile defence shield, I place sanctions on your enemy; you give me extra votes at the IMF, I give you a binding carbon emissions target at Copenhagen. This is what's really being done this week, at the UN General Assembly and in Pittsburgh.
The G20 has indeed achieved something in the ten months since it moved from being a finance ministers' meeting to a leaders' summit. Co-ordinated fiscal and monetary stimulus prevented a Third Depression; and however minimal the attempts to co-ordinate financial regulation, isolate tax havens etc are real.
But it faces questions about its democratic legitimacy - with implications close to home as well as globally.
I've just asked Alistair Darling, for example, whether any country at the G20 is arguing -as the British Conservatives do - for a fiscal tightening in 2010, and whether the commitment to expansion made here would be binding on a future government.
He ridiculed the Tories, painting them as seriously at odds with the rest of the world, ignoring the rest of the question. I tried to ask him again: does Britain's commitment bind the Tories? Obviously it cannot - but herein lays the problem. Mr Darling's aide cut me off before I could repeat this awkward question.
So welcome to the world according to the G20. It's hard to know how the leaders will measure success but one yardstick would be if there comes a time when they do not have to be aggressively protected by a ring of steel, Kevlar and violent sound.