Somebody has to step up – and if not the G20, then who?

John Kirton looks at the role of G20 before next week's leader summit in Brisbane, Australia.
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November 6, 2014
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In coming years, the Group of 20 Summit and its supporting system will continue to develop as the effective centre of global governance for a globalized world. Building on the firm foundation and momentum from its first eight Summits, it will expand its institutions, broaden its agenda and improve its performance to produce badly needed results. In doing so, it will be driven by four factors:


  1. The intensifying shocks and vulnerability that inevitably afflict major powers.

  2. The inadequacies of old multilateral organizations to deal with said crises.

  3. The successes or failures of newer plurilateral summit institutions that likewise form in response.

  4. A growing cohesion among the Leaders of revived and/or rising powers in a G20 that they will want (and need) to make a club of their own.

Forged in crisis

The G20 began as a group of Finance Ministers and central bank governors in 1999, in response to the Asian Financial Crisis of that time, and then soared to the Leaders level in response to the much larger, faster American-turned-Global Financial Crisis erupting in the autumn of 2008. As the resulting demand for G20 governance grew, its well-designed membership with its distinctive mission responded, as the same 19 systemically significant countries plus an ever-enlarging European Union worked to provide financial stability and make globalization work for the benefit of all.

Adaptable, evolving, indispensable

To sustain and further legitimize the G20 charter, between 2008 and 2013, the Leaders mounted eight Summits in five years, meeting far more frequently than they did at the annual stand-alone summits of the Group of Eight (G8) or BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). The leaders of the G8 members plus China and India always attended G20 summits, unlike the G8 summit that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin skipped in 2012 and was temporarily suspended from in 2014. This allowed the G20 to develop an extensive array of subordinate ministerial meetings, including ones for Foreign Ministers in 2012 and 2013 and for official-level institutions on most subjects. It also benefited from many civil society bodies, notably the Business 20 (B20), Labour 20 (L20), Young Entrepreneurs Summit (YES), Civil 20 (C20), Think 20 (T20) and the Youth 20 (Y20).

Ongoing successes

This institutional thickening and the advent of the European Financial Crisis in 2010 propelled a rising performance. To help manage their domestic politics, Summit Leaders increasingly inscribed complements to their countries within the communiqués. To govern domestically and globally, they also produced more commitments – the 95 at their first Summit in Washington in 2008 rising to 449 by the end of the eighth Summit in Saint Petersburg in 2013.

Moreover, the G20 commitments seemed to count, for members actually complied with them – highly at the start, modestly in the middle, but well again in recent years. And they did so even as the G20’s agenda expanded, and become more difficult and more domestically intrusive. Thus, the G20 was implemental in successfully preventing Europe’s regional financial crisis from going global, stopped most transnational terrorist finance and paved the way to eliminate chemical weapons of mass destruction from a terrorist-ridden Syria in 2013.

Future challenges for the G20

The G20 is now very well-positioned to meet the growing demands for global governance in the years ahead. Financial, economic and terrorist shocks will reappear, with the leading candidates to cause them now being a hitherto intact India, China and Russia – who even now is annexing its neighbour’s territory through military force. More energy, food and climate shocks will arise. And developmental demands will proliferate – for example, Africa, with its burgeoning population, will not meet the eighth Millennium Development Goals due in 2015, let alone the more ambitious ones (including crime and corruption) now being prepared for the 15 years beyond.

The reality is such demands won’t be met by other major multilateral organizations from the United Nations’ Bretton Woods system. The world is missing dedicated, well-resourced bodies who can properly address escalating issues such as terrorism, energy demands, climate change or crime and corruption, while the governance of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and especially the UN Security Council remains unchanged from the 1940s in fundamental ways. For example, the informal Group of Seven’s (G7) major market democracies that won the Cold War from 1975 to 1989 (who all saw fit to add a reforming Russia in 1998) have now temporarily suspended their newest member all over again due to the Ukrainian crisis – despite Russia nonetheless remaining a critical player in controlling global terrorism, Arctic pollution, climate change, regional conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan, and weapons of mass destruction in Syria, Iran and North Korea. Likewise, the BRICS summits have done little to address these issues, as their members are often divided, or preoccupied by slowing growth and serious problems of social instability at home.

Thus it’s inevitable that the G20 will evolve, albeit reluctantly, into a forum of global environmental and security governance as vulnerabilities and shocks in these areas grow.

The fact is, somebody has to step up…

Driven by these growing demands for global governance and by the absence of serious substitutes in response, the G20 leaders will increasingly come together to address these challenges in a cohesive and effective way. They will meet more often and for longer, and will work more flexibly, frankly and privately – perhaps inspired by the success of their spontaneous, unscripted dinner discussion on Syria at Saint Petersburg in 2013.

Likewise, the G20 will do a better job of communicating their intentions and results beyond the few who attend the World Economic Forum in Davos – in part by issuing their documents in all the languages that the citizens who elect them and that they themselves use at home.

Optimistically, we’ll start to see the G20 involve civil society more broadly – such as the “faith communities” within the G8, or women within the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) forum currently do.

The G20 also will find better ways to improve accountability, compliance and results, by relying on themselves and independent outsiders rather than by building a bureaucracy of their own.

And above all, the G20 will slowly learn and act on the lesson that stability depends on openness in the economic, social and political realms, and does so both globally and domestically in an increasingly interconnected world.

For more on the G20 Summit in Australia, see G20 — The Australia Summit: Brisbane.

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A version of this piece was originally published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs.