Finding the Fall Line
September 24th, 2009
September 24th, 2009
I’ve never worn a pair of crampons. I’ve never wielded an ice axe. And I’ve definitely never been snow camping. However, my favorite climber, who scales mountains weekly, has given me a rather intimate knowledge of the—completely outrageous—sport of mountaineering. And if for that reason alone, I can say I am preeminently qualified to declare that mountaineering is exactly like international politics. Well, minus the whole “risking your life” part.
Mountaintops provide a convenient symbol for anything from achievement to power. So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the meeting of the world’s twenty most powerful leaders is called the G20 “summit.” Actually, the copycat nomenclature runs far deeper. For instance: the diplomats who lay the groundwork for the G20 leaders’ trip to the summit? They’re dubbed “Sherpa,” with a dash of self-aware irony, after the Nepalese guides who help mountaineers scale peaks in Nepal. And with what may be a move to thrash the symbol to death, the G20 Sherpa’s aides are called “yaks.”
But while we’re in the business of beating the life out of symbols, I thought I’d talk a bit more about world politics and mountaineering. Today the latest G20 summit commenced in Pittsburgh. The Task Force and GFI have both been hard at work pushing leaders to put financial transparency and illicit financial flows at the top of the agenda. So far things look good; a leaked letter from Michael Froman, the U.S. Sherpa, suggests the issue is very much on the table. His letter states:
As we take these steps to increase the flow of capital to developing countries, we also need to prevent its illicit outflow. We should work with the World Bank and others to stem these flows and to secure the return of stolen assets to developing countries.
But as we saw in April, when the G20 summit in London declared the “era of banking secrecy is over,” commitments from the summit, even coming from the world’s most powerful, is not enough. Words must be followed by action; talking about it is only a step towards the goal. It’s not the end.
In an article in Outside Magazine about his summit of Mt. Everest, mountaineer and journalist Jon Krakauer notes:
But the summit was really only the halfway point. Any impulse I might have felt toward self-congratulation was immediately extinguished by apprehension about the long, dangerous descent that lay ahead.
G20 summits, much like their namesakes, are often self-admiring (see picture below). These moments are also short lived. As Krakauer says, the summit is the halfway point. The descent is often equally, if not more, dangerous than the ascent. After all, once a group of climbers has committed to a project (and by my count there is nothing more committing than climbing a mountain or signing a declaration issued by the world’s most powerful), they have to follow through.
In mountaineering, a fall line is the most direct path down a mountain at any given point. So in light of the meetings today and tomorrow, here’s to trusting the G20 has a successful summit attempt by committing to an agenda of financial transparency. And then let’s hope they can find the fall line.