West Wing The Speech We Should Have Heard at the G-20

At the financial summit in Washington, the international community was unduly respectful of the United States, neglecting to probe more deeply into the reasons for the crisis. Only one attendee was unruly -- German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück. Here's the message he didn't deliver to Bush.

By Gabor Steingart


First, the true part of the story: US President George W. Bush had invited the leaders of the world's 20 most important countries to a dinner at the White House last Friday evening. Because the financial crisis was the topic of discussion, each leader had the option of bringing along his or her finance minister. The first course, smoked quail, was to be served at 7:20 p.m.

Everyone was on time, except one man.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had arrived in a Cadillac at 6:35 p.m., the Russian president in a Mercedes and the president of the World Bank in a Lexus. Everyone looked festive. A dinner in the West Wing of the White House is still one of the highlights of a politician's career.

But where was Peer Steinbrück?

Steinbrück: "What happened here was a rat race for profits."
AFP

Steinbrück: "What happened here was a rat race for profits."

It was a drizzly evening as Bush stood at the door, greeting his guests. He seemed in the best of spirits, and with good reason. The closing statements of the meeting, which had already been written before the dinner, absolved the United States of any blame. Suddenly the financial crisis had become nationless, which, given what has happened in the US real estate market, the business practices on Wall Street and the fact that American financial regulators have looked the other way for years, could be counted as a final coup for the Bush administration.

If it hadn't been for worries about the German finance minister, everything would have been perfect. Aside from being briefed on the latest news from the Kremlin, Beijing and the mountains of Pakistan, Bush also happens to be well informed about traffic accidents in downtown Washington.

Steinbrück finally arrived.

"I heard you had an accident," the president said, as he welcomed Steinbrück. "Are you okay?" Steinbrück was as surprised as he was pleased by Bush's concern. He had indeed been in an accident, he told Bush, but only a minor one. There was some damage to the car, but Steinbrück himself was unhurt. "I'm fine!" he told the president.

At this point, the story turns to its imaginary part, the part that has little to do with the way the evening really went. This imaginary part involves a major speech. Any similarities between this fictional speech and the German finance minister's actual statements before and after the dinner are purely coincidental.

Let us assume that the effects of the accident on Mr. Steinbrück were more serious than he had let on. It isn't hard to imagine all the things the impact of a car accident can do to someone, especially to the fuses in a politician's brain.

In our little story, the finance minister suffers injuries that allow his true personality to come to light. Steinbrück, who recently tangled with European tax haven Switzerland ("it should be blacklisted"), is also known in the United States for his penchant for not mincing words.

And so, after downing a cocktail Steinbrück decides to break with protocol. Instead of strolling over to the adjacent Treasury Department for a separate dinner with his fellow finance ministers, he remains at the White House and sits down opposite the president.

The meal is served and the powerful of the world embark on a series of toasts and speeches. The guests are the picture of decorum -- until our man from Berlin speaks up. Despite all political differences between a Social Democratic and a Republican politician, says Steinbrück, he does share one passion with the US president -- a love of directness.

What follows -- in our little story, at least -- is a remarkable speech, obsessed with the truth and unencumbered by clichés. In fact, this is the first time someone has spoken this plainly with the US president.

The world will never be the same after this crisis, says Steinbrück. Wall Street will lose its dominant position. The US economic model has proven to be unsustainable.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück at this weekend's summit in Washington.
AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück at this weekend's summit in Washington.

The German finance minister flings his words like missiles into the festively decorated room. The financial markets, he says, were filled with hyperbole, self-indulgence and excess. And because the US president is still looking slightly incredulous, Steinbrück adds: "What happened here was a rat race for profit."

This is all a bit much for Bush, but Steinbrück is only getting warmed up. Now that we are sitting here together on this evening, he says, we might as well talk about accountability. "This crisis began in and was focused on the United States," he tells his audience.

The president's assurances at this event that the United States will support greater transparency and less speculation have nothing to do with moral purification, Steinbrück says sternly. "America is acting out of naked self-interest," he adds. A country that needs two-thirds of the world's savings to pay for its consumption ought to be interested in functioning financial markets, says Steinbrück.

The president looks upset. Perhaps this is the first time he has heard this figure mentioned. Steinbrück, for his part, looks pleased. "I don't let anyone get the better of me," he says, almost under his breath.

Of course, Steinbrück has not failed to notice that the US president, only a day earlier, triumphantly defended free enterprise. "Free market capitalism," Bush said in New York, the world's financial capital, to the warm, guaranteed applause of a handpicked audience, "is the highway to the American dream."

Steinbrück decides to borrow Bush's imagery. This highway, he says, needs guardrails and rules -- and penalties for anyone who breaks the rules. Otherwise, as the events of recent weeks show, millions of people will end up in the ditch -- including those who once considered themselves immortal, like New York investment bankers.

Steinbrück, now that he is in full swing, takes aim at the president's crisis management skills. Instead of curbing the crisis, he says, Bush only made it worse. First the government rescued a major mortgage lender, which was the right move, followed by an investment bank, again the right thing to do. But then it allowed another investment bank, Lehman Brothers, to go bankrupt, triggering a crisis of trust in the banking world. "That bankruptcy was the propellant that triggered the domino effect," says Steinbrück.

Why the US government decided to let Lehman Brothers go under is still a mystery today. Steinbrück has a hunch, which he is happy to share with his audience. He cannot rule out, he says, that an agreement was reached with Republican presidential candidate John McCain that the administration was to show determination to stick to its principles when it came to the economy. The government had suddenly discovered a new motto: "Those who gamble away money will be punished."

In closing, Steinbrück foresees a grim future for the United States. "Once again," he says, "we seem to have reached a point in history at which a system that allowed and tolerated boundless exaggeration ultimately cancels itself out."

The German finance minister raises his glass, but the other guests are slow to join him in his toast.

This speech was the shortest and most undiplomatic -- and the best -- of the entire summit meeting.

Note: The nice thing about this bit of fiction is that the minister is real, and so are his statements. It's just that he made them in a different place and at a different time.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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