A Global Economic Summit?

John Sewell has set himself an ambitious task: persuade the world's most powerful national leaders that they need a global economic summit.

Leaders of the key industrial nations already get together once a year as the Group of Eight. This was the Group of Seven until Russia joined recently. Their next session is in Cologne, Germany, in June. Mr. Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council in Washington, says a broader group is necessary to deal with the problems of globalization. His idea is that the heads of government of China, India, Brazil, and representative nations of other parts of the world should join with the G-8 leaders just before or after the June summit.

With about 24 leaders altogether, the meeting size would permit real discussion, Sewell figures. Three topics would be on the agenda:

1. The design of a new international financial "architecture" - a term used by President Clinton - aimed at ensuring growing world prosperity.

2. A new agenda for encouraging expansion of world trade. For the last two years, Congress has not given the Clinton administration the necessary tool - "fast-track legislation" - that would enable the US to lead new efforts to trim trade barriers.

3. More effective measures to shield vulnerable countries and peoples from "economic shocks." In other words, a method to avoid a new crisis like that in Asia.

Sewell knows that without United States' support his proposal is dead. "If the White House doesn't want to play, nothing will happen," he says. But the lanky think-tanker hopes Clinton will seize the idea "as a fitting capstone for his last two years in office."

Sewell has some things going for a global economic summit. One is that it is a joint proposal with Peter Sutherland, who used to head the World Trade Organization in Geneva and now is an investment banker. Mr. Sutherland knows personally a lot of powerful people in the world.

Another, perhaps, is that Michel Camdessus, managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), proposed something similar last April in a London talk. The G-8 summiteers, he suggested, should invite a group of other national leaders to join them every other year to talk about world economic affairs. Sewell thinks the global economic summit should not be just an appendage of the G-8. Non-G-8 nations are becoming more important economically. They want that recognized.

Another favorable element is the Asia crisis itself. It has opened up discussion of a host of new refinements for the international economic and financial system. Then Mr. Clinton himself spoke at the annual meeting of the IMF in October of the need "to renew the institutions of international finance so they reflect modern economic reality."

Just last month, Gordon Brown, Britain's chancellor of the exchequer, said at Harvard University: "Our aim must be an international financial system for the 21st century that recognizes the new realities - open not sheltered economies, international not national capital markets, global not local competition."

Sewell and Sutherland have campaigned for their idea for more than a year. They have had opinion articles or other coverage in prominent publications in France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and the US, including this newspaper. Thus their proposal has become familiar, at least to the interested.

Now the two are busy presenting their proposal to key governments. Of course, world economic affairs are already discussed elsewhere. The executive board of the IMF, for instance, is talking about a new facility that could dispense loans rapidly to avert another financial crisis.

To Sewell, world economic issues must be raised to the political level of national leaders. It is they who have responsibility over the full range of challenges and opportunities created by globalization. They could set an agenda for actual negotiations at the ministerial or lower levels of government.

Will a global economic summit happen?

Sewell doesn't know. "Perhaps I'm tilting at windmills," he says.

David R. Francis is senior economic correspondent for the Monitor.

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