And as officials frenetically tried to paper over differences among the Group of 20 members with a vaguely worded communiqué to be issued Friday, there was no way to avoid discussion of the fundamental differences of economic strategy. After five largely harmonious meetings in the past two years to deal with the most severe downturn since the Depression, major disputes broke out between Washington and China, Britain, Germany and Brazil.
Each rejected core elements of Mr. Obama’s strategy of stimulating growth before focusing on deficit reduction. Several major nations continued to accuse the Federal Reserve of deliberately devaluing the dollar last week in an effort to put the costs of America’s competitive troubles on trading partners, rather than taking politically tough measures to rein in spending at home.
The result was that Mr. Obama repeatedly found himself on the defensive.
He and the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, had vowed to complete the trade pact by the time they met here; while Mr. Obama insisted that it would be resolved “in a matter of weeks,” without the pressure of a summit meeting it was unclear how the hurdles on nontariff barriers to American cars and beef would be resolved.
Mr. Obama’s meeting with China’s president, Hu Jintao, appeared to do little to break down Chinese resistance to accepting even nonbinding numerical targets for limiting China’s trade surplus. While Lael Brainard, the under secretary of the Treasury for international affairs, said that the United States and China “have gotten to a good place” on rebalancing their trade, Chinese officials later archly reminded the Americans that as the issuers of the dollar, the main global reserve currency, they should consider the interests of the “global economy” as well as their own “national circumstances.”
The disputes were not limited to America’s foreign partners. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner got into a trans-Pacific argument with one of his former mentors, Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, after Mr. Greenspan wrote that the United States was “pursuing a policy of currency weakening.” Mr. Geithner shot back on CNBC that while he had “enormous respect” for Mr. Greenspan, “that’s not an accurate description of either the Fed’s policies or our policies.” He added, “We will never seek to weaken our currency as a tool to gain competitive advantage or grow the economy.”
Much of the rest of the world seemed to share Mr. Greenspan’s assessment. Moreover, Mr. Obama seemed to be losing the broader debate over austerity. The president has insisted that at a moment of weak private demand, the best way to spur economic growth is to have the government prime the pump with cheap credit and government stimulus programs. He quickly found himself in an argument with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
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