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The G20's Promising Past, Present and Potential

John Kirton, Director, G20 Research Group
January 26, 2023

Presentation on "What Is the Role of the G20?" at Senior College, University of Toronto, Faculty Club, January 25, 2023


I have three main messages.

One, G20 performance has grown, but not fast enough.

Two, its last summit, in Bali, Indonesia, in November, was a substantial success, but still not enough to meet the many, interconnected crises we now face.

Three, its next summit, in New Delhi, India, in September, has a promising start but still needs to do more to meet the unprecedented global need now.

1. Past Performance: Rising Supply, Faster Demand, 2008–2021

Since their start in 2008, G20 summits have produced a rising, broadening supply of global governance, but not enough to keep pace with the greater growing demand, even as G20 governance has strengthened in many ways.

Rising, Broadening Supply

This rising, broadening supply is seen in its summits' expanding decisions, and their delivery.

G20 decisions rose from 95 at the first summit at Washington in 2008 to 225 at Rome in 2021. They broadened from their initial focus on financial regulation to emphasize macroeconomic policy by 2009, development by 2010, digitalization by 2016 and health by 2020.

G20 members' delivery of these decisions started at 76%, quickly plunged to 56%, then rose rather steadily to reach 86% for the 2020 summit.

Greater Global Demand to Multiple Crises by 2022

Yet this rise was not enough to meet the more rapidly growing global demand.

The G20 quickly controlled the global financial crisis from 2008 to 2009, then prevented the global spread of the European financial crisis from 2010 to 2012. But it struggled to contain the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, the climate change crises in 2021, the geopolitical shock in 2022 from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and the energy, food, inflation, recession and debt shocks that then came.

Spurs and Shortfalls from Global Shocks

Such shocks spurred the G20's growing performance. But G20 institutions did not grow enough to meet the proliferating need.

Leaders met twice a year from 2008 to 2010 on finance, and from 2020 to 2021 on Covid-19. But they met only once a year in between, and only once last year.

G20 ministerial meetings grew in frequency and breadth, but largely in single-subject silos, rather than the synergistic combinations needed to confront the many, interconnected, simultaneous shocks now.

2. Present Performance: The Bali Summit's Substantial Success, 2022

At their last summit, in Bali in November, G20 leaders produced a substantial performance.

Bali's Breakthroughs

Their standout achievement was a collective, 12-page consensus communiqué, with clear new messages and important advances against the major threats.

On Russia's war against Ukraine, most leaders "strongly condemned the war in Ukraine." They condemned any threat to use nuclear weapons there, after Russian president Vladimir Putin hinted that he might. They warned against the weaponization of energy and food, thus telling Putin to stop destroying the energy infrastructure in Ukraine as winter began, and to let Ukraine's grain flow out to the many starving people beyond.

On health, G20 health and finance ministers formally created the new Pandemic Fund, to ensure that the next Covid-19–like pandemic would quickly be stopped.

On climate change, G20 leaders agreed to reduce their countries' use of fossil fuels.

Dimensions of Performance

For their domestic political management, 17 leaders attended in person. Only Russia's Putin, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro, and Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador stayed home.

In their deliberation, leaders finally overcame Russia's relentless vetoes since February 24 to produce a fully agreed communiqué.

Moreover, it was a lengthy, detailed, declaration of over 10,000 words, longer than those from the three summits before.

In their principled and normative direction setting, leaders affirmed the G20's first distinctive foundational mission of promoting financial stability 27 times. They affirmed its second mission, to make globalization work for all, 43 times.

In their decision making, they made 223 commitments, more than most earlier summits had.

Most were on the environment, closely followed by development, food and agriculture, climate change, macroeconomic policy, and health. The commitments covered 22 subjects, including terrorism and non-proliferation.

The delivery of these decisions will likely be substantial, given the continuing severity and scope of similar shocks and the many ministerial meetings on these subjects that India is holding this year.

3. Prospective Performance: The New Delhi Summit's Promise, 2023

India's Power and Priorities

Now comes the New Delhi Summit on September 9–10. This is a first for India, the world's most populous democracy, and the world's fastest growing large economy now.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an experienced veteran of nine G20 summits.

Under the theme of "One Earth, One Family, One Future," he has promised an "inclusive, ambitious, decisive, and action-oriented" presidency, with seven priorities.

Planned, Prospective Performance

The first is on climate change, biodiversity, the environment and energy. Here his summit aims at stronger, more comprehensive climate action for the short and longer term. It seeks a global net zero plan and target, a new quantitative goal for increased climate finance, new mandates for multilateral development banks, and innovative finance. It also seeks to strengthen the circular economy and responsible consumption, production and lifestyles. It proposes to scale up renewable energy, green hydrogen, ammonia, green shipping and critical minerals, and produce a green development pact, as the cornerstone of a global economic plan.

Second, on the economy, it seeks to drive economic growth and development for the short and long term. This covers macroeconomic policy, financial regulation, international trade, investment, infrastructure and supply chains that benefit small and medium-size enterprises and the poor. It also seeks the digitalization of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Third, on sustainable development, it wants a robust action plan to advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It also intends to improve the Debt Service Suspension Initiative. It will further focus on small farmers, on exempting World Food Programme purchases from restrictions and on improving productivity through digital technology.

Fourth, on digitalization, its goal is promoting digital public infrastructure for health, agriculture, education and payments, under a common framework with core principles such as interoperability, scalability and privacy.

Fifth, on health, it seeks to secure new resources and mobilise digital technology.

Sixth, on women-led development, it intends to help young, pregnant women, and women's nutrition, finance, entrepreneurship, workplace experience, and leadership in economic and professional life.

Seventh, on multilateral institutional reform, its focuses on reforming the architecture from the 1940s, to deal with today's needs on development, climate change, disasters, food, conflict and terrorism.

More broadly, on security, it will act on crime and corruption, and terrorist and proliferation finance. It will build on Bali's breakthroughs against Russia's war on Ukraine, and consider rebuilding Ukraine in healthier, cleaner, greener ways.

To strengthen the G20 system, India has invited the leaders of nine countries and 14 international organizations, focusing on Africa. Some G20 leaders suggest making the African Union a full member. India is also producing a "people's G20," by mounting 200 G20 meetings in 56 cities and innovative outreach.

So, at present, there are promising prospects for summit success.

But they had be even better if India added three things.

First, more summits.

Second, more combined ministerial meetings, and

Third, the head of a major multilateral environmental organization, participating for the first time.

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