The US retreat from leadership of liberal multilateralism could open a policy space for new members within a reformed G-20.
The 2017 G-20 summit, normally dull and technical, emerges as a key transition point in global power relations. G-20 participants were wary after a painful confrontation at the May G-7 meeting. The Six had to confront President Trump’s crass rejection of the globally endorsed Paris Declaration commitments on climate change.
The summit rolled out July 7th in Hamburg to the noise of smoke grenades and water cannon at a major anti-globalization street protest. Chair Angela Merkel found herself the reluctant de facto leader of the Western world, given the continuing flawed performance of United States President Donald Trump. His White House staff were so scatty that they even forgot his hotel booking!
G-20 leaders, Trump included, wanted to be seen as constructive players after that stormy G-7 meeting. Of course, new actors, including powerful voices from the Global South, presented their own strong views on topics like climate change and trade liberalization. This left G-20 sherpas working through the night to cobble together an unusually short leaders’ declaration. This reflected Merkel’s continuing ambitions for a forward-looking text, especially on the key issues of climate change, trade liberalization, and migration. The communiqué was a document by and for the Nineteen, providing a separate paragraph for the US to reiterate its negatives, notably its quitting of the Paris climate change agreement. In true G-20 style, the text was full of familiar promises and unimplemented plans on topics such as banking reform and measures to reduce tax evasion.
Outside, protesters were so busy shouting that they (and maybe some G-20 members) missed a game-changing transition. Hamburg saw the G-20 breaking through the supposed G-7 exclusivity on geopolitical debate. Even if the challenges are the same, G-20 membership, which bridges North and South, means intrinsically more inclusive perspectives. Voices such as those of China, Indonesia, and Brazil count for more than those of the UK, Italy, or Canada. With “America First,” the US was seen as isolating itself from its nominal friends, treating them as competitors, not allies.
Most of the action in Frankfurt took place in bilaterals, private side-meetings between leaders. Most exclusive was Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nobody, not even the principals, knew how that chemistry would evolve. While the secret bromance had been widely discussed, they had actually never met. The event, billed to last 30 minutes, ran for more than two hours, even though Melania Trump barged in midway to say “time’s up boys.” The hottest topic was whether Putin had really influenced the US election. It was certainly discussed and Trump said he, even if not most Americans, now believed Putin’s denial. They wanted to move on — but to where? New joint peace deals for Ukraine and Syria?
Much more discreet and tense were discussions between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping on North Korea. To most outsiders, a dangerous game of nuclear chicken is being played, with the populations of Seoul and several Japanese cities as potential road-kill. Trump, having once boasted of achieving a peace deal by sharing a hamburger with Kim Jong-un, is instead trying to pass the ball to China. But Trump and his advisors know the next move is actually theirs. A hard one to swallow, it involves offering a security deal to the North Korean leader, rather than continuing a bragging competition over who has the best bomb. Few in the G-20, North or South, support a dry run at World War III.
Trudeau was not the only superstar at the G-20 meeting. But he did earn a Trump “shout-out” that they were close friends (for now!). Trudeau’s networking skills were premium assets. He had already gained a new buddy, the new Irish prime minister, earlier in his trip (though also a rival for a UN Security Council seat). Trudeau’s most welcomed role was as the reliable friend for a harried Merkel.
New partners in a renewed G-20
The disruption caused by the US retreat from its traditional leadership of liberal multilateralism could now open policy space for new partners within a reformed G-20. The G-20 Leaders’ mode was created in 2007 out of a cozy club of finance ministers to confront, relatively successfully, the global financial crisis. Now we have an even greater global crisis, that of climate change, compounded by Trump’s rejection of the Paris Agreement. Can a reshaped G-20, one empowered to provide political leadership, play a critical role? G-20 leaders helped bring together the once-deemed impossible — a partnership of emerging economies, notably India and China, together with the OECD countries and all of the developing world, committing to the economic and social transformation needed to reduce global carbon levels. The very visible cold shoulder of the G-19 towards the USA could work eventually. Meanwhile, major US states such as California and New York are taking the lead.
What might be involved in reshaping a G-20 with a broader geo-political mandate? First, it needs a modest secretariat, geographically balanced, to replace those blurry-eyed sherpas and gain critical continuity in policy analysis. Second, it needs a more inclusive membership with a mandatory presence of the global poor, as well as other middle-income developing countries. The goal is to shape a more inclusive and fairer debate on global finance and trade.
This broader membership could be achieved by pruning the disproportionate presence of mid-sized European nations and adding one rotating seat reserved for least developed and fragile countries as is done at the World Bank. Indeed, all G-20 “seats” could be organized on a constituency basis, e.g., Saudis leading an Arab seat. This would end those long lists of special guests at each G-20 meeting who are one-off, window-dressing observers.
Too much fantasy? Just look at the success represented by the rush of countries to join China’s Asia Infrastructure Bank. Canada could set the lead by suggesting a reformed G-20 at “its” 2018 G-7 summit and by inviting the next G-20 chair, Argentina, and perhaps the current BRICS chair. Bold, yes, but doable and worthwhile. After all, a Canadian — Paul Martin — invented the original G-20.
This article is an adaptation of an op-ed entitled “A Divided World: G19 + 1” published in the Hill Times on 12 July 2017.
John Sinclair is a Cambridge-educated economist, formerly with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank. As a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and a McLeod Group member, he teaches and comments on global issues and international development.