Well all the columns and opinions have been written, I assume, over the Chinese G20 Summit. Other than congratulating the Chinese leadership for having pulled it off – and there is something to be said for that – the general conclusion to be drawn from these many pieces was that little was achieved with the major concern – coordinated economic growth by all the G20. The communique was a classic instance of bureaucratic ‘gobbledegook’. While the yardsticks were moved on a number of issues, no bold announcement by the G20 Leaders was made. As my colleague, Colin Bradford declared in his Brookings blogpost, “2016: The year for leadership that wasn’t for the China G-20”
2016 may have been the year that teed up the need for new direction, fresh initiatives, and strong leadership, but the contrary interests of G-20 member countries seem to have missed this opportunity at Hangzhou. Whereas some of the keywords for an ambitious transformative approach are in the Hangzhou G-20 communiqué, there is evidence of avoiding commitments, ducking the big ideas, and mouthing the right words but dodging the verbs and adjectives that contained ambition.
With the annual G20 fast approaching (September 4th-5th in Hangzhou China) it is worthwhile reflecting on the progress, or lack of it, that the G20 Leaders gathering has accomplished since the successful efforts to avoid the catastrophic consequences of the Great Recession.
For a number of G20 cycles now, observers have recognized that the G20, notwithstanding the urging of many experts and former officials, has failed to make the transition to a steering committee. Meanwhile, G20 process has become heavily freighted with endless recommendations, statements and communiques from a growing variety of expert and non-expert corners. The question is not whether the G20 finally will be a success because of the hosting by China’s leaders. The Chinese Leaders know how to run a summit. They have approached this Summit with great effort and seriousness and should be commended for their efforts. But really, it will not be Chinese leadership that is likely to reveal G20 progress or not.
The Editors at the EastAsianForum in a very recent post, “Making the Hangzhou G20 summit relevant” have once again put their collective finger on the issue:
But the fundamental purpose of the G20 is to set the strategic direction. The worry is that the G20 is drifting away from this role and becoming more like an international think tank than the steering committee for the global economy that it was set up to be. The G20’s deliverables are increasingly bureaucratic, focused on commissioning reports, holding meetings, developing strategy papers, publishing high level principles and high level policy documents.
Coordination and harmonization are keys to collective action in global governance. The jury remains out as to exactly what China’s hosting can accomplish with respect to either.
ANU’s Adam Triggs recently wrote that there were only three practical things that any G20 Leaders’ summit can accomplish:
… it can share information and best practice policies between countries; it can reform global governance by either reforming existing institutions like the IMF or creating new ones; or it can undertake what Oxford University’s David Vines calls ‘concerted unilateralism’, where countries implement policies (fiscal, monetary or structural) to suit their own economies, but do so collectively.
As a number of us suggested in our V20 Hangzhou gathering at Zhejiang daxue in the spring, Leaders also can, and should extend, their efforts beyond what is described above. Indeed in our collective view there is nothing more critical than having G20 Leaders direct their message to their own publics. They need to signal their publics as to what is critical in their G20 efforts. As our Blue Report to the Chinese leadership urged:
Together, G20 leaders can make clear and powerful statements which can signal the path of economic progress to all actors around the world. … Leaders at G20 Summits can strengthen their connection with their publics by devoting more attention to the content and the modes of communications from the summit platform. … Key ideas could be summarized and Leaders could speak in more direct ways to their publics. … G20 Leaders understand that globalization requires fair and updated rules that can elicit trust, a sense of fairness, and certainty.
So it is evident there is much anger out in ‘election land’ and among the many electorates these days. The distemper is widespread. The ‘oddest’ of campaigns of course is the Presidential race – just 98 days away – in the United States. A campaign driven in part by the Republican nominee who has abused his opponents and his putative friends – all in the name of ‘no more political correctness’. We are reminded constantly that rising inequality and plodding economic growth across the established powers and increasingly among the rising powers has led to growing frustration and anger from those in the 99 percent. Whether you are looking at global GDP, global trade, or global investment, all these measures of possible global prosperity look anemic. At a minimum these measures signal that the global economy has in fact not really recovered from the Great Recession.
Gideon Rachman of the FT suggested very recently that there is a strong link between those supporting Donald Trump in the US and those who voted in favor of leaving the EU in the UK referendum. As Rachman concludes in assessing these Brexit voters:”The second [parallel] is the way in which the Trump and Brexit campaigns have become vehicles for protest votes about economic insecurity. The third is the chasm between elite opinion and that of the white working class.” While it is of course much harder to identify frustration and alienation from governments in authoritarian societies, it is not hard to believe that there is much anger lying ‘just below the surface’ in states with authoritarian regimes and high degrees of inequality such as in China and Russia and in more democratic developing ones such as Brazil and South Africa.
So the G7 met in Japan this past week. And the media did in fact pay some attention to it. But the attention was largely for the wrong reasons. This caucus/club was often in the past dismissed by those not invited to the party. Countries and experts alike referred to the G7 as the ‘Rich Man’s Club’. The emergence of the G20 – at the time of the global financial crisis – redirected attention to this Informal as opposed to the G7. There was criticism of course. Media, experts and representatives of those countries not included reflected on the lack of legitimacy, failing to be universal, self-identification, etc. But the G20 was never attacked for being a narrow interest as the G7 had been. The G20 was the first, and remains the most notable global summit platform of established and emerging powers. Indeed at the time of the G20’s creation, there was much discussion of the likely passing of the G7 summit. Obviously that didn’t happen.
It is jarring. It shouldn’t be, but given the strategic actions of the leading state, it is. We all have gotten so used to the exercise US military muscle (or not), especially in the Middle East, it is shocking almost, to see diplomacy in the lead. It takes some getting used to. So the Iran deal has been concluded. As Robin Wright described it in The New Yorker:
The agreement is the Obama Administration’s boldest foreign-policy initiative. It marks the first success in dealing with Iran since its 1979 revolution and the prolonged seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran.
A few surprises are worth mentioning – and then there were a lot of non-surprises. On the not a surprise side. Well start with headlines from most of the international press. Early headlines focused on the cool reception delivered to President Putin by various Western leaders and then the early exit of Russia’s President. Putin left before the collective lunch and before the release of the communique following the lunch. All-in-all reasonable political theatre but little to do with the G20 agenda.
After serious progress at APEC among the leaders, what can we expect from this weekend’s G20 leaders meeting in Brisbane. The continuing knock on the G20 as a “talkfest” continues. Chris Giles of the FT, no fan of the G20, declaring:
It leaves the G20 as something of a forum for grandstanding, bilateral meetings over geopolitics and impotence on world economic affairs.
There are repeated warning from media and other experts that the G20 has somehow reached a watershed. Ben Doherty at the Guardian has declared: “This week’s Brisbane meeting of the Group of 20 will be a crucial test: can it be a genuine agent for change, or just another tired horse on the merry-go-round of international confabs?”
So we are about to enter high season in the global summitry calendar. First up will be the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation scheduled for Yanqi Lake just outside Beijing proper on November 11 and 12, 2014. This is in turn followed by the ASEAN Summit (technically not a global summit) where the day following is the global summit meeting called the East Asia Summit (EAS). This Leaders Summit includes 18 Asia-Pacific leaders now that Russia and the United States have been added as of 2011. The meeting this year will take place in Naypyidaw the capital city of Myanmar. And with a final burst of energy Leaders will meet for the G20 Leaders Summit on November 14-15th in Brisbane this year. It is a tight schedule designed to allow leaders to attend all three and then to return to their home countries.
Well it certainly has not been ‘the best of times’ – particularly not if you’ve been reading the international pundits. And indeed there is a lot of tension, strife and conflict in the international system whether in the Middle East, or in Eastern Europe or in Asia in the South China and East China Seas. No matter where you look it seems you can find these nasty conflicts.