At the Crossroads? – The Hangzhou G20 Summit and After

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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.

The current G20 needs to fight the growing anti-globalization trend that is apparent in the national politics from the US, EU, UK, Russia and elsewhere.  But first it would be helpful to understand the institutional  framework of the G0. A large part of the G20 structure is made up of, in fact, the bureaucratic elements – the Sherpa track and the Finance stream, plus the transgovernmental meetings, working party meetings, etc., etc. – what I have called frequently the ‘Iceberg’ of G20 decision making.

However, one needs to distinguish leaders actions from the Iceberg pronouncements. We need to separate the necessary work of officials and experts and others from the key, and indeed primary leaders’ work.  Thus, on the ‘steering committee function’  – and what is a leaders activity – what needs to happen is something much more like what many of us suggested at Hangzhou this spring and described in the proposals to the Chinese government of what was called the Blue Report, later made public.  What leaders need to do, – and what is quite separate from the policy machinery – is to offer a clear leaders stripped down statement concerning the direction collectively required for global economic prosperity and the effort to ensure that globalization serves all, and not just the well-off few. As Paul Martin, Canada’s former Prime Minister and one of the original advocates for a Leaders gathering urged, the L20 or G20, as it became known, that while the G20 has had its successes, “if its objective is to make globalization work as I have always believed it must be, to be frank, of late it has fallen short of the mark.”

The bureaucratic ‘baggage’ doesn’t go away. It can’t. The efforts of the officials are necessary work that has to be carried on. It is, however, required that the G20 separate all the work of officials from the critical signalling work that has to be undertaken, and can only be undertaken by leaders directed at their own citizens.  The steering committee leaders’ statement by necessity must be frugal and precise.   As the Editors of the EastAsiaForum suggest:

The G20’s fundamental comparative advantage is in its ability to reform global governance and developing consensus on steering global economic decision making. Its role is to look at the big global strategic picture, not get bogged down in the bureaucratic detail.

All the work of the officials, however, needs to carry on.  Their work needs to be prepared and examined and digested by all.  Then coordination needs to be secured after discussion and debate – and also after adaptation to national circumstances. Then a clear statement can issue from Leaders. Such an approach is designed to disentangle Leaders from officials and what each must perform.

Let me look at one other issue that seems to burden rather than assist the steering committee approach that many of us are urging for G20 leaders.  It is the effort of what I call the ‘near summits’ – the B20, G20, L20, C20, T20, W20 and on.  These near summits are, I’m afraid, a classic ‘consultation exercise’.  What I mean by that is the process has numerous bureaucrats eager to adopt a “Let’s listen” approach. Then, in a feel good way, these officials appear to accept all the hard work these ‘global society’ segments generate but in the end these same officials do what they want to anyway, largely ignoring just about all of it.  Or worse, in the case of a number of these near summit groups, governments ‘cherry pick’ membership – who attends, and they then receive the outcomes they think they needed in the first place.

In the face of all this, it probably would assist the G20 relevance factor by eliminating most, even all, of what has become ‘global society baggage’ –  apologies to all my good friends – and lighten the load by eliminating these well-meaning but largely ignored exercises. There needs to be something from below but this ‘alphabet soup’ of ’20something institutions’ probably isn’t it. For now these groups need to redirect their efforts to national authorities for policy purposes and to gather otherwise to devise the means to create autonomous groups, especially in those countries where independence is deeply questioned, or worse.

The G20 as a steering committee is the objective.  The normal and accepted process won’t get us there.  Major surgery is required.  And China, or any other country as host, cannot alone accomplish the goal sought.


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  1. Pingback: The Internationalist » The G20 Hangzhou Summit: Making Globalization Work

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