The assessments of global summits seem to be measured by new minimum standards, given the current state of international cooperation: The G20 concluded its summit in Buenos Aires on 1 December 2019 without any significant ruptures and with a joint declaration. This outcome was all but self-evident, after President Trump withdrew his consent to the communiqué of the last G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Canada, via Twitter while flying back to Washington. And at the recent APEC summit, the US and China clashed over trade issues and the meeting ended without a joint declaration – usually a diplomatic given. The recent intensification of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine as well as the international outcry against the killing of the Saudi government’s critic Jamal Khashoggi added to the challenges. G20 summitry watchers were therefore all but certain that the Buenos Aires summit could be concluded in an orderly fashion. It is a success for the Argentinian host that it did despite all the headwind.
If the biggest success of a G20 summit is that it didn’t collapse, then one shouldn’t expect too much in terms of substantial outcomes. The G20 is struggling to produce the kind of policy outcomes that are needed to tackle global challenges from climate change, migration, to digitalization. In that light, it might seem surprising that the Buenos Aires summit concluded with a commitment to reform the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a deadline for a quota-reform in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to increase the say of developing and emerging countries and the commitment to implement the Paris Climate Agreement. Yet, the notion of WTO reform means very different things to different G20 countries, the quota reform is long overdue and the US continues to stay outside of the G19 consensus on the need of climate action.
In light of the meager result of the Buenos Aires summit, some commentators, including one of the main public broadcasters in Germany, called to abolish the G20. This, however, ignores important functions of the G20 meetings. Dissolving the G20 would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Five arguments why the G20 stay’s relevant
First, the international political crisis that prevents stronger action is not unique to the G20. In fact, the will to underwrite international cooperation is waning in many corners. In such circumstances we should have more fora where leaders can meet and discuss, not less. They need to engage with each other, even if they cannot reach a consensus.
Second, judging the effectiveness of the G20 depends on the expectations. It sounds far-fetched in 2018, but in a way the G20 has become the victim of its own success: It has been the key forum to prevent the meltdown of the international financial system in 2008 and 2009. However, as the global financial crisis was successfully mitigated, the world turned to new challenges that require strong and much more long term action – just think of climate change and sustainable development. The firefighting role of the G20 during the global financial crisis then cannot be fairly compared with the facilitating role it plays today with regard to enhanced multilateral cooperation on issues such as tax, trade or global health.
Third, the G20 has more layers than the annual summit meetings of leaders. In fact, government officials and line ministers, academic experts as well as business and civil-society organisations are meeting regularly in between the summits building up international networks of expertise, communication and trust that are key as a basis for international cooperation.
Fourth, the G20 is reflecting the changing power structures in the world economy. This is not a club of like-minded countries. It does include difficult partners – and needs to do so! Besides Europeans and its increasingly difficult partner USA, important emerging powers are sitting at the table. There are more stakeholder in the international system nowadays than 20 years ago, which makes discussions more complex. And this makes the exchanges ever more important! The future task to integrate African representation, beyond South Africa as a formal member, would help to reflect the growing importance of the continent, even if this would add further complexity to deliberations.
Fifth, and lastly, even if the G20 summit at times rather seemed like bilateral “speed-dating” between world leaders, it is good to have such a forum. It will be better when acting multilaterally – specifically if worst comes to worst and another financial crisis hits the global economy. But meanwhile, it keeps the communication going and ideally builds some mutual understanding, if not trust, between key global actors.
No sitting back
Overall, the G20 is far too important for us to allow it to go into hibernation and have the nationalists have their own ways. The G20 forces key actors to engage with each other regularly. Its engagement processes like Think20, Business20 or Civil20 can do more to communicate to the broader public what the G20 has achieved. Yet, such a communication also needs to reflect the peculiar nature of the G20 as an informal forum without a mandate or secretariat, operating on the basis of annually rotating national presidencies. There are limits of what the G20 can do – and what it should do.
Japan took over the annual presidency from Argentina on 1 December 2019. It should not shy away from putting thorny issues on the agenda, such as support for multilateralism in trade, sustainable development and climate action. The exchange on these issues is needed, and it is needed amongst the key actors assembled in the G20, too. On a number of major global challenges, we need common understanding and agreement on actions. And we can only establish this common ground by continuous discussions, particularly in difficult times.