Scaling Down Ambitions? G20 Agenda Evolves from Global Governance to Bilateral Consultations

The fate of the G20 is an example of how difficult it is in the modern world to establish any formalized forms of international or global governance. Despite the fact that problems are increasingly truly global in nature, their solution is becoming increasingly national. States do their due for their own citizens and, as a rule, do not take into account the interests of mankind as a whole.

The G20 Summit, held in Argentina these days, is a very good reason to reflect on how the role and importance of international institutions is changing in an increasingly chaotic world. The G20 itself, as it is known, reached its current format exactly 10 years ago, in the wake of panic caused by the 2008 financial crisis. Many hopes then were connected with this format. It was assumed that within the G20 it could be possible to discuss in a more representative way the issues that could no longer be considered in the traditional format of global governance – the G7 (at that time the G8). The objective economic and later political rise of India and China made discussions on major international issues without their participation completely meaningless.

Large developing economies were interested in establishment of a new platform – they joined the “synchronization of watches” on the central issues of the international system. For the United States, the G20 could become a convenient format to spread the responsibility to solve its problems to the rest of humanity. It is noteworthy that despite the existence of the G20 the United States and its allies keep working the G7 format – meetings of a kind of world oligarchy. This left little doubt that the community of Western countries was going to continue to agree first among themselves, and only then go to the G20 with a common agenda.

The End of Institutions or New Forms of International Discourse?
BRICS should remain an example of a new type of civilized intercourse by a group of major independent states. The ability to uphold common approaches to a preconceived ideal world order is quite rare at a time when certain countries pursue an increasingly selfish policy.
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© 2017 Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP

In the first years, the G20 coped with the tasks quite successfully. First of all, this happened because the participants discussed specific problems of development and overcoming crisis disregarding the political and value systems of one another. They also avoided raising political issues. The politicization of the G20 work began in 2014. The Australian chairmanship turned the G20 summit into a kind of clowning, trying to demonstrate the “isolation” of Russia that had allegedly arisen because of the events in Ukraine. This had no practical effect, but demonstrated how frivolous can be the attitude of Western countries to the most important informal body of global governance. The leading states of the world more often try to make the G20 a field to achieve their national priorities or to promote their own approaches to the world or regional systems.

Over time, the agenda of global significance was gradually washed out by the national initiatives that began to prevail. The main attention was paid to bilateral meetings and negotiations. Thus, the G20 gradually changed its essence. Instead of the forum, where representatives of the leading countries of the world discuss and try to find solutions for common problems of humanity, it became an occasion to hold summit talks on specific bilateral contradictions. Although in some cases these contradictions, of course, become problems of all mankind.

For example, this year all attention around the G20 summit is concentrated on the meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. The US president’s trade offensive against China and Beijing’s indecisive response are considered by many observers to be part of a longer negotiation process. And the meeting on the sidelines of the Buenos Aires summit is one of its episodes. Also interesting is the expected meeting of Trump with Angela Merkel, as well as talks between the Russian President and the German Chancellor. Such agenda is clearly not enough for the G20 to be seriously considered an “economic Security Council”.

Another characteristic consequence of the transformations taking place from year to year within the G20 is the lower level of expectations regarding the impact of its work on the state of the world economy and the behavior of states. Leading experts recognize that the decisions of the forum are either not fulfilled or turn out to be extremely streamlined and general in content. Although it is difficult to argue with this, the transfer of the summit’s main burden to the format of bilateral consultations gives the whole event a kind of monarchist flair: by analogy with the congresses of the royal persons of Europe in the 19th century, the most striking and productive of which was the Vienna Congress of 1815.

The fate of the G20 is an example of how difficult it is in the modern world to establish any formalized forms of international or global governance. Despite the fact that problems are increasingly truly global in nature, their solution is becoming increasingly national. States do their due for their own citizens and, as a rule, do not take into account the interests of mankind as a whole. A caricature of such behavior is President Donald Trump, who pointedly denies the very notion of “common interests”. Having come to power under the slogans of protectionist and nationalistic nature, he consistently implements them and translates all international cooperation into a form of bargaining, where the final compromise solution is not even supposed to exist. So, there is no talk about the “benefit of all mankind” at all.

Such a strategy and tactics of the United States has already led to serious problems, if not the split of the G7. On the background of difficulties experienced by the leading European countries (United Kingdom, Germany and France) in their relations with the partner across the Atlantic, the G20 might have a chance. However, its political weight is yet insufficient to replace the main informal forum of the West. This will require a change of the G20 perception by the majority of the participating leaders. The traditional allies of the United States, primarily in Europe, need to recognize the fact that resolving critical development issues with actors outside the Euro-Atlantic region is normal in the modern world.

Chancellor Merkel’s Summit
The G-20 summits were established in response to the global financial crisis of 2008-9, giving recognition to the important role that emerging powers outside the G-7/8 could play in resolving the crisis. Heads of state and government agreed to large increases in funding for the IMF and World Bank, and to modest increases in developing countries’ voting power in both organizations. The United States and China implemented large stimulus packages that helped to re-stabilize the world economy.
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© 2017 Christian Charisius/AP

The G20 can become an instrument to overcome, or at least to mitigate the most important conflict of our time – “the West against the Rest”. The 500-year domination of Europe, and then the United States and Europe in world affairs formed a very powerful tradition, whose revision is still not enough in present conditions. The West still views the rest of the international community, including those in the G20, as unequal to itself. This perception blocks the possibility of actual movement along the path to common gains.

Moreover, an important obstacle for the G20 to realize its potential as an institution of global governance is the deep value gap between the participants. In order to solve the problems, and not just to calm the markets, one needs to see them about the same way, to recognize the sources of their origin. And this requires at least rudiments of common norms and values. What was the advantage of the G20 at the beginning of its work — wide representation — becomes an obstacle for its future development.

However, the good news is that this informal institution has gained foothold in the political consciousness. None of the leaders calls for its dissolution. And here we are witnessing another interesting phenomenon – international institutions, be they formal or not, naturally occupy a certain niche even without being able to expand its agenda and increase its influence. In the G20 case there is a possibility to hold several bilateral meetings within one event and an intensive international cooperation during the preparation of summits or other formats. This, especially the latter, increases the density of civilized international interaction in the modern chaotic and crumbling world.

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