Reporting from Seoul — The leaders of the world's 20 major economies on Friday ended a frequently rancorous two-day summit in this northeast Asian capital without reaching agreement on specific steps to avert damaging currency and trade wars.
There were far more setbacks than gains, but President Obama suffered the biggest disappointment, falling short in his attempt to forge a unified approach to boosting the global economy.
In one blow, G-20 members refused to endorse a U.S. effort to force China to raise the value of its currency, prolonging a bitter dispute that many say could eventually lead to a global trade war. Before world leaders left the city, they issued a watered-down statement agreeing merely to refrain from "competitive devaluation" of currencies.
The joint statement described their intent to promote growth while balancing trade and exchange rates and avoiding protectionist policies in general. U.S. officials described it as a substantial deal that will help relieve some of the pressure on countries suffering big trade deficits. But nations are under no binding obligation to follow the agreements.
The previous day, the U.S. and South Korea acknowledged that they remained in a stalemate over a free-trade agreement that has languished in the national legislatures of both nations.
In his final speech, Obama put a positive spin on a disappointing summit, saying that the world's developed and developing economies have been successful in putting the global economy back on a path toward recovery.
Yet he acknowledged that the summit nations risk slipping back into the old imbalances that contributed to the global economic crisis.
Still, he would not admit defeat in back-door meetings that often seemed on the verge of breaking into hostility.
"The work that we do here is not going to seem dramatic. It is not always going to be world-changing. But step to step, what we're doing is building stronger international mechanisms and institutions" and reducing tensions among nations, Obama said.
He also blamed the media, saying that the reporting on the G-20 summit has been "all about conflict," while ignoring that what was accomplished.
He stressed that G-20 leaders made strides, including the development of a system to give the international community a mechanism to determine whether countries are engaging in unfair practices with their trading partners.
"Sometimes I think naturally there's an instinct to focus on the disagreements," the president said, when in fact "in each of these successive summits we've actually made progress."
But time and again in Seoul, world leaders showed that they were in no mood to compromise and instead were headed toward broad, general pledges that did little to mask their inability to find common ground for immediate action.
At times, that failure to find consensus raised the specter of countries pursuing their own interests at the expense of coordinated and balanced global growth.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned of the risks of that route at the summit opening, saying failure by the G-20 to accomplish some sort of global accommodation could lead to "a return to what happened in the 1930s: protectionism, trade barriers, currency wars, countries pursuing beggar-thy-neighbor policies; trying to do well for themselves but not caring about the rest of the world."
Many countries, however, appeared to be doing just that. In particular, they took aim at the Federal Reserve's recent decision to pump $600 billion into the U.S. financial system, a move that critics saw as an attempt to lower the value of the dollar and therefore make U.S. exports more competitive.
As the leaders gathered in Seoul, Bank of China Chairman Xiao Gang called the Fed's move "dangerous," writing in the semiofficial China Daily newspaper that it had driven the dollar down in value, raised expectations of inflation and hurt other economies. That position was backed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who said the U.S. was "pursuing a policy of currency weakening."
U.S. officials declared they were doing no such thing. And, in fact, the U.S. dollar has been rising in value in recent days.
"We will never seek to weaken our currency as a tool to gain competitive advantage or to grow the economy," Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner told CNBC from Seoul. "It's not an effective strategy for any country, and it's not for the U.S. We'll never do that."
But sharp opposition to the move from China and Germany, among others, also scuttled Obama's original goal of getting countries with large trade surpluses to agree to reduce those imbalances to measurably lower levels.