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Is the G20 still relevant?

As the G20 summit begins on 9th September in New Delhi, the Council on Geostrategy asks six strategic experts whether the forum is still relevant

Jamie Gaskarth, The Open University

The G20 is a key forum for governments to discuss global economic matters, occupying a sweet spot of including enough states to have legitimacy while bringing together those actors who can actually make a difference. Its high point was the London summit of 2009, when a clear and singular focus provided a coherent response to the global financial crisis. In recent years, the range of issues on the agenda has meant fewer concrete outcomes.

Lacking a permanent secretariat and enforcement mechanisms, the G20 risks being a declaratory body, with promises made and broken at will. The decision of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, not to attend has caused confusion and debates over motives, but it does not bode well for the G20’s future importance.

Fundamentally, the three big economic questions of the era are what to do about Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Peoples Republic of China’s (PRC) rise, and climate change. The G20’s problem is that trying to address any individually risks making the others worse.

Rather than tinker at the technocratic margins, global policymakers need to consider the ‘inventor’s paradox’; overlaying the current patchwork of economic forums and clubs with a new and more robust governance body may be the only way to address the economic problems of the 21st century.

John Kirton, University of Toronto

The G20’s 18th summit will be the most important one which G20 leaders have ever held. Members of the G20 confront an unprecedented combination of interconnected crises: slowing economic growth; high inflation, interest rates and debt; energy, food and health insecurity; Russia’s war against Ukraine; and, above all, the climate emergency resulting from record heat and subsequent extreme weather events devastating the world. 

This is the first time India, the world’s most populous country and the G20’s most rapidly growing economy, will host a G20 summit. It continues a trend of rising democratic powers hosting the G20, with India following Indonesia in 2022 and preceding Brazil in 2024 and South Africa in 2025. It thus enables New Delhi to present its case for greater Indian leadership in global governance whilst it is alongside the world’s top-tier powers of the democratic United States (US) and authoritarian PRC.

The upcoming summit follows another trend: the rising importance of producing results at each one. G20 summits started amidst the American-turned-global financial crisis in 2008. But the impetus behind creating and convening the group came from a single field – finance – and was indeed solved through financial measures at the summits from 2008 to 2012. The singular health crisis from Covid-19 from 2020 to 2021 was more difficult, but was contained largely by the G20’s financial response. Today, there are far more interconnected crises, and only G20 members have the collective power to mount an effective response.

Tristen Naylor, University of Cambridge

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has caused economic turmoil with runaway inflation, global food insecurity, and soaring energy prices; all while stymying the G20, the top table of economic governance tasked with responding to these crises.

The prospects for this year’s New Delhi summit look dim. Preparatory meetings, including the key finance ministers’ meeting, have ended in deadlock, while Russia and the PRC have disassociated themselves from every mention of the ongoing war in working group documents. With G20 members so divided over the war against Ukraine, the group can not address substantively the economic and financial turmoil the hostilities precipitated.

However, this does not mean the G20 is no longer relevant. While the summit meeting itself will dance around the war, it is on the margins in side-meetings that leaders have the chance to overcome stumbling blocks. This points to the essential and enduring value of the G20, even beyond the immediate context of the war against Ukraine and its effects – the summit is the one event every year which the major geopolitical powers meet face-to-face in the same place at the same time. In a world marked by geopolitical contestation, the G20 is primed to be the most important international forum for managing 21st century multipolarity.

Julian Neuweiler, Bower Group Asia

Last year, Indonesia used its G20 presidency to focus on inclusive post-pandemic recovery which left ‘no one behind.’ The emphasis on recovery and inclusivity prioritised digital, health, and economic development for developing countries. Likewise, India is using its 2023 presidency to spotlight the needs of developing countries, emphasising food and energy security, climate resilience, and sustainable infrastructure financing. 

For decision makers in Indonesia and India, the G20 is important as it provides the opportunity to lead and influence an international institution often seen as dominated by the leading liberal-democratic economies. Likewise, the intended audience for the objectives of the last two presidencies leans more towards less developed countries, providing opportunities for citizens and businesses which may have otherwise been overlooked. However, it is difficult to determine whether the objectives of Indonesia’s presidency have so far led to any concrete outcomes for those championed. Time will tell for India, too. 

Brazil will host the G20 in 2024 and has already outlined a vision which mirrors Indonesia and India. Brazil will focus on tackling global inequality, climate change, and reforming international governance. South Africa takes the helm the year after, and it may follow a similar line.

The last few years have seen a reinvigoration of the G20 as it has pivoted to emphasising the development needs of developing countries. This is a result of the string of emerging economies taking the helm and their intent on repositioning multilateral institution as more inclusive. Over the coming years, as more developed countries take up the top position again, the G20 may not retain this new outlook.

Deepanshu Singh, consultant to the Government of India (G20)

As the world becomes more unpredictable, multilateralism becomes more relevant. The world today is characterised by rising protectionism and geopolitical tensions. In such an environment, the G20 is a unique platform to foster constructive dialogue and cooperation among countries which may not usually come together, or only do so rarely. It offers space to foster inclusive relationships and collective action.  

Take a look at the major global issues: Covid-19, climate change, and economic inequality. All of these are impossible to solve without dialogue and cooperation. The G20 serves as an important forum to address these challenges.

As a professional associated with the Government of India in G20 trade negotiations, I can confirm that the Indian principle of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’, or ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’, aligns with the core philosophy of both the G20 and what the world needs currently. Yes, there are doubts about the efficacy of the G20. And yes, we need to keep experimenting with different ways to foster a better and more equitable world. 

But this is exactly why the G20 is relevant; it brings nations together, to promote cooperation and a more harmonious and prosperous world. As long as the world stands divided, the G20’s commitment to inclusive partnerships and collective action will remain essential for progress.

Melissa Conley Tyler, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue

The G20 is meeting at a time of fractures in the international system. Established as a meeting of the systemically important economies, it offers the opportunity for G7, emerging, and middle powers to work together to provide public goods for all.

But right at the moment the ‘West and the Rest’ do not seem quite aligned. The fact that the Russian and Chinese leaders will not be attending the G20 Leaders’ Summit is telling. The proposed recent expansion of the BRICS suggests that emerging powers remain unhappy with their representation in global governance.

A keynote of India’s presidency has been its attempts to find common ground. When I was attending a Think20 event in New Delhi earlier this year, Meenakashi Lekhi, the Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture, suggested India can act as a bridge given that it is a country of the north (geographically), south (economically), east (culturally), and west (democratically).

But bringing people together is a hard task in the current environment, especially with the very different views about the war against Ukraine. Last year, Indonesia did an excellent job of balancing these tensions.

India has been celebrating the hosting year as showing off what it sees as its rightful position in world affairs. It will be disappointed if anything spoils its ‘golden age’ party.

But the reality is that there is less global consensus than there was during the G20’s unprecedented global coordination to stave off financial crisis. There is the same need for coordinated global action – particularly around the impact of the war against Ukraine on food security, poverty and inflation – but G20 members do not have the same will.

The G20 remains as relevant and needed as ever; but it can only do so much when there is not common ground.

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