G20 as a Venue for Meetings. and Nothing Else?

World public opinion is focusing on the G20 summit in Osaka. But the event itself reveals a very indicative pattern. If you read the press or comments by experts and politicians, you will notice that the overwhelming majority of stories are devoted to bilateral meetings on the sidelines, with writers engaging in guesswork as to whether or not such and such meeting is going to take place, and if it is, what its outcome, if any, will be. At the same time, the G20 agenda and issues discussed at its plenary meetings seem to be viewed as a matter of secondary importance. Moreover, by no means all the experts can say what precisely G20 is going to concentrate on this year. It was the same at last year’s summit in Argentina, and in 2017 too.

This has resulted in a new trend in this format’s evolution. G20 is growing in importance primarily as a venue where state leaders professing different approaches to world politics and the global economy can meet and talk to each other, at least by virtue of the fact that they are physically at one and the same hotel or one and the same conference center at a given moment. In this regard, G20 is indeed convenient as it affords an opportunity for these meetings in a situation where arranging bilateral summits is difficult – politically or otherwise. But the G20 summits per se are emerging as just a backdrop to these meetings and therefore are increasingly seen as a formality.

Initially, however, the G20 format was planned for a totally different purpose as a response to mounting allegations that the G7/8 format lacked a fair geographical representation. It was claimed that G7 was a club of advanced nations and therefore had no moral right to address global problems on behalf of others. A number of more radical critics even branded G7 as nothing more than a tool of neocolonialism.

G20: A Transition to Bipolarity?
Stanislav Tkachenko
Although the G20 still retains its potential to support the global economic stability, there is an impression that its mission is coming to an end. If this trend is not reversed, then, a summit or two from now, we might see the return of trade wars and competitive devaluations of national currencies. In that case, the current G20 format, built around the US leadership and hegemonic in nature, will not work at all. The nature of the G20 is that of an international forum, not an international intergovernmental organization.
Expert Opinions

G20 in this context was conceived as a fundamentally different format involving representatives of all regions of the world as well as major developing economies. Thus, G20 offered a much broader and more versatile palette of opinion than G7, which was largely seen as speaking for the West alone. Moreover, 20 permanent participants made the format easily manageable and therefore more efficient than larger organizations. Besides, summit organizers often invited representatives of other stakeholders or regional integration unions, thereby preventing the principle of fair geographical representation from clashing with the efficacy of everyday work.

The G20 meetings of heads of state and government came into being at the same time as the outbreak of the 2008-2009 global economic crisis. For this reason, world public opinion initially had very high expectations with regard to G20. In fact, for the first two years, the G20 summits were held twice a year and they considered in detail the more urgent economic, financial and trade issues on the global scale. In that period, great continuity in matters under discussion could be traced from summit to summit. Often G20 focused on the practical results of preceding summits and analyzed what was really done over the past six months. This gave G20 consistency, something that increased hopes for its efficiency.

But the situation changed over time. The global crisis eased. (It could be debated whether or not G20 played a role in that achievement, but this is a totally different story.) From 2011 onward, G20 summits were held once a year and it was obvious that from one summit to the next, there was a deterioration in the consistency and continuity of G20 operations. Implementation reviews were increasingly marginalized and each year host countries suggested their own topics that were often unrelated to those of the previous year. The following year, a host country would again put forward a totally different range of issues.

China and G20 Summit
Wang Wen
China, as the world's second largest economy and the largest developing country, plays a unique and increasingly important role in the G20 as a “coordinator” and “booster," writes Wang Wen, Executive Dean and Professor of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University.
Expert Opinions

As a result, the international community has increasingly come to regard the plenary sessions at G20 summits as talk shows of sorts. This year, for example, we discuss digitalization. Next year, the topic is food security, and digitalization is totally forgotten. Given that G20 is an aggregate of countries with different and often contradictory approaches to world politics and economics, it is much more difficult for it to reach a consensus on really urgent and topical issues than for the more one-sided G7 (at least, before Trump). So, in order to avoid disrupting a consensus (which is for the media the main criterion of a summit’s efficiency), the issues on the agenda were made increasingly general and abstract. Eventually, its recommendations often resembled the well-known formula “we are for all the good things and against all the bad things.” But this is both inept in terms of meaning and boring for the media. Consequently, the public focus shifted from G20 plenary meetings to bilateral meetings on the sidelines. The Trump factor has only added emphasis to this shift of focus.

But can we say that 11 years of G20 have dashed the initial expectations associated with this format or that these were unreasonably exaggerated? Can we say that this attempt to achieve a fair geographical and social representation for better global governance has proved ineffective, degenerating into an annual formality? And, if so, is efficient global governance in a broad format possible at all? There are no simple answers to these questions. But today we can at least assume that the “value added” by G20 in world politics is primarily perceived as the provision of a logistic venue for pointed bilateral meetings.   

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.