Reflections on the G-20 Summit
December 1, 2010
Reflecting on the G-20 summit in Seoul, it is clear that too many instant assessments focused on the predicted growing irrelevance of the G-20 due to the lack of agreement on President Obama’s proposal on global trade rebalancing. These appraisals both underestimate the difficulty of achieving agreement on hard issues in a multilateral body and overestimate the role of the body itself in bringing states to consensus.
International institutions are only as strong as their membership is united. They are forums for discussion and decision and, in many cases, implementers of those decisions. There is no magic to any institutional arrangement and no special urge toward unity that comes from countries gathering around a table.
An international institution is simply the means for states reaching and implementing agreements on issues that require a multilateral approach. It is an instrument of the collective will of its member states. And member states, large and small, act in these bodies primarily according to their national interests. When a useful agreement is reached in an international body on a difficult matter of international concern, we should rightly applaud its member states and the organization that facilitated that agreement. We should understand that the existence of the organization was probably useful in reaching the agreement in that it provided a forum for discussion and debate. But, we should not too easily reach the conclusion that a failure to achieve agreement is the fault of the body alone.
Of course, organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Bank are operational entities that do more than provide a forum for member state discussion. They implement the decisions of their members and should be judged on the effectiveness of that implementation. But, none of those institutions is able to take initiatives of any significance without the approval of their members.
International bodies often deal with the most difficult problems that face the global commons: climate change, international trade rules, economic development, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding. It should be no surprise, then, when governments are unable to agree. These issues require multiyear processes that might not ultimately achieve a positive outcome. If there is no agreement, look first for fault among the member states, not the body itself. To be sure, the structure of the body can be a problem in itself, as the lack of membership requirements for the UN Human Rights Council regarding the respect for human rights demonstrates. The sheer size—encompassing all 192 member states of the United Nations—of the climate change talks made reaching agreement nearly impossible. Moreover, the UN Security Council, IMF, and World Bank have decisionmaking structures that reflect the global power environment in the mid-twentieth century, not the early twenty-first century. The overdue reform of those institutions rests in the hands of their member states.
Making sure that the right states are at the table is important, but it is much more important that the members see agreement on any given issue as being in their respective national interests. Leadership in these bodies, usually from the United States, helps. But the Seoul summit demonstrated that U.S. leadership is not always enough, as it could not induce China and Germany to give away their significant global trading advantages.
The summit was hardly a rousing success. When presented with the possibility of cooperation on global stability or maximizing their own economic growth, the summit participants opted for growth, an unsurprising outcome. The global economy is still weak and governments need to increase domestic employment. In addition, the membership of the G-20 was unlikely to side with the United States against China, the object of the currency appreciation pressure, given the former’s increasing economic weakness as against the latter’s strength. As a result, the outcome was an exceedingly bland summit communiqué that set out clearly the lowest common denominator for agreement.
Any longing for the days of the entirely Western G-7, or its later incarnation, the G-8, requires actively forgetting the difficulty of reaching agreement in that body. It is unlikely that the initiatives President Obama proposed would have been achieved in the G-8 format.
The G-20’s broader membership is simply an acknowledgment of the changed international power environment. Global power is more diffuse and has shifted from the United States to a wider range of countries. The point of increasing the membership was to make the body’s decisions more legitimate and easier to implement by including the right players at the table, even at the cost of a more unwieldy structure.
The G-20 remains a useful body for discussion of international economic issues. Its successes in the depths of the global economic crisis in 2008 and 2009 should not have led euphoric observers to see the body as the world’s new “steering committee” and to urge the broadening of its mandate. At the same time, the inability of its members to reach agreement on hard issues in Seoul should not lead to gloom about the future of the G-20. The summit outcome demonstrates instead the difficulties of multilateral diplomacy. It does not tell us whether the G-20 can play an important role in providing direction for the global economy in the future.
Mark Quarterman is senior adviser and director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).