Economist Jean Pisani-Ferry has discovered the answer to Henry Kissinger’s apocryphal question by examining the published agenda and telephone records of US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner.
Between Jan 2010, after the crisis erupted in Greece, and Jun 2012, the last month for which records have been released, Geithner had 114 meetings and telephone calls with the heads of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his successor Christine Lagarde, and their deputies.
Over the same period he had 58 contacts with the president of the European Central Bank, first Jean-Claude Trichet then Mario Draghi since Nov 2011.
National finance ministers of the big EU member states came next, with 36 contacts with Wolfgang Schaeuble in Germany, 32 with the French finance minister (three incumbents over the period), 19 with non-euro Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer, and a handful of calls with counterparts in Spain, Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
Yet Geithner spoke only 12 times to European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn and a mere once to Jean-Claude Juncker, the chairman of eurozone finance ministers who was once touted as “Mr Euro”.
He noted that Geithner’s diary does not specify the topics of the meetings and phone calls, so there is no certainty that the contacts focused on the eurozone crisis.
However, given the degree of publicly stated US concern about the risks to the world economy from the eurozone crisis, “what else could have justified 58 contacts in 30 months between Tim Geithner and the ECB’s successive presidents?” he asked.
Pisani-Ferry drew three conclusion from Geithner’s records:
* They reveal the extent of US involvement in trying to manage the European crisis, with a total of 168 contacts with European policymakers during the period.
* “The ECB emerges on top of all European institutions, far ahead of the European Commission and further ahead of the Eurogroup.”
* Within Europe, there were more contacts with the German and French finance ministers than with the European Commission or the chairman of the Eurogroup, indicating the driving role of major national capitals in the crisis.