G-20 Summit Post-Game Analysis

David Shorr

Art: Boris Basin

When we watch the planet’s most powerful men and women assembled in an effort to navigate the global economy’s current rough seas — as G-20 leaders did in Cannes last week — do they deserve our scorn, sympathy, or something in between? If it’s political heroics you’re looking for, then you are bound to have pretty low regard for these people. For those of us who follow the process closely, on the other hand, a modicum of sympathy toward the leaders is the only basis for a fair assessment.

Indeed, a couple seasoned summit-watchers used their Cannes wrap-up commentaries to turn their criticism on the G-20 critics. As Alan Alexandroff of U. of Toronto Munk School’s Global Summitry Project posts on his Rising BRICSAM blog, he dove into the weekend media coverage in fully braced for a hatchet job on the summit, and wasn’t disappointed. Both Alan and Barry Carin of the Centre for International Governance Innovation stress that world leaders have to surmount domestic political obstacles, rather than dismissing or wishing them away. As a reality check, Barry takes stock of all the thorny matters on the global economic agenda:

It was certainly foolish to expect that Cannes would resolve the euro crisis, reverse the global economic slowdown, put an end to currency misalignments, adopt a Tobin tax and new regulations on banks “too big to fail,” restrict speculation on food markets, save the Doha Round, and deal conclusively with climate change. If the gridlocked US political system is unable to agree to a medium-term debt reduction plan while still stimulating the economy in the short term, it is wishful thinking to expect that G20 leaders can do so.

It’s not that world leaders should be given a pass, but instead of waiting for them to leap tall policy shifts in a single bound, we must appreciate that the most important agenda items can only be achieved incrementally. Both of my colleagues offer helpful explanations of how the G-20 actually functions. The Alexandroff post highlights the work of lower-level officials that takes place in between summits, and the Carin post portrays the G-20’s main function as commissioning work from other, more narrowly focused of the multilateral system. I agree with the idea of G-20 leaders as high-level agenda setters, but we must acknowledge that for signature G-20 issues like economic rebalancing, they have a higher agree of ownership.

I want to note three things of particular interest that happened at Cannes.

For those of us who’d like to bolster the G-20’s credibility, one concern has been the group’s perfunctory calls for trade negotiators in the World Trade Organization’s decade-long Doha Round of talks to reach an agreement. Many have argued that simply admitting failure would be a refreshingly honest break with the pretense that success is within grasp. The leaders in Cannes didn’t go quite that far, but paragraph 66 of their summit communique did the next best thing — instead of giving the talks a dubious deadline to complete within a year, they called for the negotiations to take coming year to show a plausible new path forward or go back to the drawing board.

While I haven’t seen it mentioned in media reports, apparently there was a significant development regarding China’s participation at the summit. From what a colleague told us, Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke to his G-20 colleagues without a prepared text (hat tip to Yves Tiberghien of U. of British Columbia). This may seem like a small thing, but in terms of the practice of summit diplomacy, it’s actually an important step toward more substantive bargaining over policy issues and the increased effectiveness that could bring.

As I argued in a Stanley Foundation analysis brief earlier this year, the G-20 should gradually broaden its sphere beyond its traditional focus on economic policy. At heart, it’s an argument about the need to better integrate the rising powers into the multilateral system. Some G-20 experts call for the summit process to “stick to its knitting” (i.e. the global economy), but we can debate over what should be considered the G-20’s defining characteristic. On the one hand, its agenda and origins indeed focus on economic growth and financial stability. At the same time, though, the G-20 is also distinguished by being the only global leadership club where rising and established powers come together as peer equals — the major new diplomatic initiative to adjust to shifts in global power. This wasn’t a big issue in Cannes, but it did fall within the purview of the report commissioned from British Prime Minister David Cameron on the G-20 as an instrument of global governance (which addresses the question in paragraph 1.16):

In parallel, the scope of the G20’s agenda has been subject to much debate. In practice, the G20 represents 85% of the world economy. It should therefore focus on the challenges of economic globalisation broadly defined, and provide political impetus where it is most needed, where it can make the greatest impact, or where an absence of continued political engagement now could risk future crises.

As a participant in this debate over the breadth of the G-20 agenda, there’s certainly enough for me to like in this para. Rather than clearly defining the G-20’s proper basket of issues, it talks about globalization’s “broadly defined” challenges. I also like the emphasis on G-20 leaders directing their efforts where they can do the most good. In all the discussion about keeping the leaders from becoming distracted, I like to point out that not all issues are equally distracting. The G-20 Anti-Corruption Working Group is an example of a relatively uncontroversial issue where leaders have had a positive impact with a minimum of time and attention.

Job One for the G-20 is clearly its stewardship of the global economy — to keep it growing and ensure the international financial system is solid. But precisely because progress on many of these issues is incremental by necessity, the summit process has enough bandwidth to deal with other matters. Besides, as the group hopefully hits its stride, the gains in effectiveness will also make it easier to take on more issues. The point I always make is that we don’t usually talk about rising powers only on the economic axis; they pose political challenges too, and our high-level diplomacy must reflect this.


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