After one decade of G20 summitry: What future of global club governance in turbulent times?

Photo: Barb Wire with a Sigen that says "Private: No public right of way. G20 is an exclusive Club

By ASchrumm – CIGI Communications Dept, CC BY-SA 3.0

A decade ago the world was struggling with the repercussions of the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008 that emerged in the interconnected transatlantic financial system. At this critical moment in time, the G20 was elevated from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors to the level of heads of states and government. By including a number of rising as well as middle powers non G7 countries the first G20 summit in Washington in November 2008 made clear that current cross-border challenges cannot anymore be dealt with by the old powers of the traditional establishment. At the subsequent summits in London (April 2009) and Pittsburgh (September 2009) the G20 displayed an astonishing level of international cooperation by agreeing on wide-ranging commitments that helped to calm down international financial markets and strengthen the crisis response of international financial institutions. These early initiatives led some optimistic observers to conclude that the system worked.

Despite this praise for the G20, since the first days of the G20 critics argue that the G20 lacks legitimacy due to the arbitrariness of the selection of its members, the rivalry with the United Nations’ system and the lack of accountability of the G20 vis-à-vis its own societies and non-members. A decade after its foundation more and more experts question whether the G20 is able to deal with another major crisis which today is not caused by economic but political turbulences. The backlash against rules-based multilateralism and international cooperation has also infected the G20 since the 2017 Hamburg summit. Fundamental differences among the leaders sitting at the top table have resulted in decisions to water down previous commitments, such as the anti-protectionism pledge, or the go it alone approach of the US on climate policy. In addition, the G20 is facing a societal backlash that is questioning its basic premise of existence, i.e. being able to effectively tackle global problems.

In order to analyse the evolution of the G20 during the past decade, including its mechanisms of cooperation and outreach, as well as the conditions for effective global problem solving we have brought together a group of scholars from the global South and North in a Special Issue on “A decade of G20 summitry: Assessing the benefits, limitations and future of global club governance in turbulent times”.

In the following, we would like to highlight three broad lines of argument that emerge from the contributions of the Special Issue informing future research on global club governance.

First, in order to analyse the ability of the G20 to contribute to global problem solving it is necessary to appreciate its changing institutional set-up and its position within the broader global governance system. While the early days of the scholarly debate on the G20 evolved around a discussion whether the G20 should focus on crisis prevention or should take over the role of a global steering committee. The contributions of our Special Issue make clear that the G20 has become a fragmented and decentralised global governance hub that interacts with various international organisations and transnational actors from G20 and non-G20 countries. These discussions underline that the G20’s contribution today do not only relate to actual policy output but also in terms of its contribution to maintaining international as well as transnational cooperation in an era of increasingly contested multilateralism.

Second, the effectiveness of the G20 depends on the presidency’s ability to build political coalitions among like-minded countries and gather technical support from international organisations. Another, often overlooked factor, factor for successful G20 initiatives is the underlying working group structure that brings mid-level officials together in some cases also involving the G20’s engagement groups. Nonetheless, it is being argued that the G20 lacks effectiveness in dealing with major global challenges such as addressing climate change. The discussion on how to make the G20 more effective, however, is ongoing. While some argue that the G20 needs to increase its outcome orientation, in contrast to being primarily a platform for dialogue, by increased informality enabling “fireside chats” among the leaders. Others argue that the G20 needs to become more institutionalised by including decision-making procedures beyond consensus, transparency guidelines and more formalised consultation processes for societal stakeholders.

Third, the elevation of the G20 to the level of heads of state and government was a major step in integrating rising as well as middle-powers in the global governance system. How those countries, both from a state and societal perspective, relate to the G20 necessitates further research. In his context it is interesting to note that societies of old and new powers both put a strong emphasis on output legitimacy. Significantly, however, when it comes to input legitimacy, societal actors from rising powers put a stronger emphasis on this dimension and also more frequently refer to the challenges of poorer developing countries. Another interesting variation relates to the status seeking policies of the new G20 powers. When it comes to promoting South-South cooperation some countries such as Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Mexico prioritise specific types of multilateral aid channels. Other countries such as China, India, Russia and Turkey are more likely to adopt other types of multilateral aid and bilateral channels. What stands out among all these countries is an effort to balance their own individual interests and their connections with the developing world beyond the G20.

Axel Berger is Senior Researcher and Head of the G20 Policy Research Group at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

Photo: Andrew Fenton Cooper

Andrew Fenton Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, Ontario, in Canada. He also teaches at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, also in Waterloo.

Image: Sven Grimm

Sven Grimm is Head of the Programme Inter- and Transnational Cooperation with the Global South at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE).

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