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Ausgabe 15/2009

'I Take Responsibility' Obama's G-20 Confession

At the G-20 in London, world leaders tried their hand at global governance. The minutes of their final, decisive session reveal how hard it is to reach a worldwide consensus. But the group did break new ground: US President Barack Obama admitted his country was responsible for the current crisis.

By Marc Hujer, Wolfgang Reuter and Christoph Schwennicke


Something was missing and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi wasn't about to accept it. For the past four hours, the heads of state and government of the world's leading countries had squabbled, made amends and reached agreements. They could now go home.

But there was a strange silence during this final phase, the silence of one man. Barack Obama, the president of the United States of America, the most important man at the G-20 summit in London, had remained silent for some time now.

US President Barack Obama: "I take responsibility."
Getty Images

US President Barack Obama: "I take responsibility."

Berlusconi now spoke to him directly: "I would like to extend my congratulations to Barack Obama," he said, adding that the economic crisis had begun in the US. "Now he has to address it," he said and looked towards Obama. "We wish him all the best for the citizens of the US and the entire world."

Then everyone turned to the American president. The 18 men and two women were sitting in the drab ExCel Conference Centre, where red bouquets that resembled flower boxes had been placed on the tables. The world's top politicians were waiting for a closing statement.

"It is gratifying to see that good work has been done here," Obama began. "Ten, 20, 30 years ago, it was not a matter of course that countries which were traditionally enemies solved problems together. After the Great Depression, a similar group did not convene until 1944. Also in 1982, following the Mexico Crisis, it took seven years before the problems were tackled together." Now he spoke with urgency: "It is important that we do not sell short the results of this summit. The press would like us to have conflicts. Instead we have attained great achievements. And it is important that we exude confidence."

He then lowered his voice: "It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the crisis began in the US. I take responsibility, even if I wasn't even president at the time." And he underscored how important it is for him "that we now genuinely make progress. Thank you." Applause.

The others couldn't believe their ears. Was that really a confession of guilt from the US? Was it a translation error, or at least an inaccuracy? Afterwards, this sentence fueled long discussions among the members of the German delegation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so impressed by Obama's statement that she rushed to tell her finance minister, Peer Steinbrück. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso reacted immediately: The proposal to hold the next summit not in Japan, but rather in the US, is something that he no longer rejects, he says, "now that the US has shouldered responsibility."

Obama's confession may go down in world history as one of the greatest statements ever made. The US president is accepting responsibility for the beginning of one of the worst economic crises of the last century. By doing so, he has admitted that one of the excesses of the American way of life -- the insatiable craving for huge profits -- has brought the world to the brink of disaster. The others may have played their part, but the origins lie in the US. The fact that Obama has now admitted this sends a strong signal of hope to the world, perhaps the strongest to emerge from the G-20 summit in London last Wednesday and Thursday. Such an admission could begin to pave the way towards rectifying the situation.

A number of resolutions were also made in London: Pledges to introduce greater regulation of financial markets, ban tax havens and grant loans for poorer countries. It still won't be enough to save the world yet. The summit will not help liberate the world's banks from the burden of billions of dollars' worth of toxic derivatives. It won't trigger an economic upswing, and the expectation that it can successfully rein in global financial markets is little more than wishful thinking.

But the conference does signal an important departure from Anglo-Saxon-style turbo capitalism, with its unregulated credit markets, promises of double-digit returns and astronomical bonus payments for managers. It could mark the beginning of more moderate business practices, under the watchful eye of countries with more regulatory muscle.

In the hours immediately preceding the conference, it didn't look as if the representatives of the world's leading economic powers would be able to achieve such a result. The host, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, didn't think much of firm controls of financial markets, and preferred to boost the economy with new stimulus packages. Obama appeared to share his views.

Over the previous week, though, a united front had gradually emerged on continental Europe. This alliance had existed earlier, but had started to crumble. Germany and France seemed to have drifted apart under Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But after a flurry of phone calls and a number of meetings, they found a joint position on the financial crisis: regulation of the financial markets and no new stimulus packages. It looked like the stage was set for a battle between the continental Europeans and the Anglo-Saxons.

Shortly after Merkel and Sarkozy landed in England on Wednesday, they held a joint press conference. The German chancellor said she was "slightly concerned" that participants at the conference might too easily opt to sweep things under the rug and "not seize the evil by the roots."

Sarkozy then said that he and Merkel spoke with one voice. He said that he would not leave here "without new regulations." The French president said that one was either in favor of putting an end to how things had been done or continuing as before. He said that nobody had to lecture Europe on how to forge compromises, but a compromise had to be shared by all the regions of the world, especially since the crisis had clearly not erupted in Europe, "n'est-ce pas?"

All of this sounded fairly confrontational, despite the frequent use of the word "compromise."

When the world's most powerful leaders met on Thursday afternoon at the ExCel Conference Centre for the plenary session that concluded the summit, it looked like a deadlock situation. In the middle of the previous night, the preparations of the sherpas -- as the negotiators are called -- for the final communiqué had come to a standstill. At some point in time, the aides had thrown their hands up in despair. It seemed to them that the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and German-French worlds were simply too great.

As a result, their bosses found no polished texts on the table, only a draft with many gaps and question marks. At an international summit, this counts as a worst-case scenario.

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© DER SPIEGEL 15/2009
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