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.
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.
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.