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G20 Public Diplomacy: A Global Governance Imperative

Caitlin Byrne
Bond University
August 25, 2016

Paper prepared for an international workshop on "Making Global Governance More Effective and Inclusive: The G20 and The United Nations," hosted by the School of International Relations and Public Affairs of the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), the Center for G20 Studies of SISU, and the G20 Research Group of the University of Toronto, Canada; co-hosted by the UN Association of China and the Shanghai UN Research Association; and sponsored by the Lowy Institute for International Policy of Australia and the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs' Asian Institute, Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History, East Asian Studies Program, David Chu Asia-Pacific Program, and the Department of Political Science, held at SISU, Shanghai, China, on August 25-26, 2016.


While the Group of Twenty (G20) fulfils the functions of public diplomacy, it does so unevenly, and in the absence of strategic design. This paper suggests that more can be done to improve and demonstrate the G20's listening capacity, rebalance its advocacy approach, engage the vast transnational public network structure in integrated problem-solving, and evaluate the public dimensions of its diplomacy. Furthermore, viewing public diplomacy as a communicative process that underpins its identity and legitimacy brings further opportunities for the strategic redesign of G20 public diplomacy. The paper suggests a two-pronged approach. First, articulating a G20 narrative that aligns to an integrated global economic, social and environmental policy agenda. Secondly, redesigning G20 engagement and interactions in order to maximise the collaborative potential of these multi-hub, multidirectional networks. Both proposals require a long-term vision and commitment, which is difficult to achieve within the G20's loose, rotational, nomadic model of operation. Coherent troika buy-in and leadership supported by strategic input from across the engagement platforms is essential. Though not to be overstated, the public diplomacy emphasis proposed is about enabling the G20 to deliver on its longstanding mandate, '…for the benefit of all', while projecting its role as a lever in the larger framework of global governance reform.


In 2014, Tim Costello as chair of C20 stated that '…the true marker of a successful [G20] leaders' forum will be the restoration of confidence to civil society and business alike… achieved through evidence of the G20's true engagement with the challenges facing the world in 2014 and beyond'. In the lead up to the 2016 G20 Leaders' Summit, the same marker of success might again be applied. This paper suggests that the Group of Twenty (G20) is the best mechanism for consolidating and rebuilding public confidence in the global system. Applying a public diplomacy lens it argues that the G20's evolving global identity and public engagement processes underpin its contemporary relevance and legitimacy, and drive its axiomatic fit with global governance reform. But there are challenges to address. In its current form, G20 public diplomacy, though functional is ad hoc, fragmented and vulnerable to the same informal characteristics that define its recent effectiveness. The paper argues that if left unchecked, these weaknesses will undermine the G20's relevance and legitimacy, potentially feeding off and fuelling declining public confidence in the global system.

The argument unfolds in three sections. The first section reviews the role and relevance of public diplomacy to the contemporary, multilateral G20 context. The second section highlights key weaknesses in G20's identity resulting from flawed communicative processes and suggests a two-pronged approach for redesigning G20 public diplomacy for the contemporary environment. Findings suggest that the G20 troika could play a more effective leadership role. To conclude the paper suggests that by taking advantage of progressive public diplomacy approaches the G20 might play an effective dual role as both an actor and instrument of global governance reform.

 G20 Public Diplomacy

Public diplomacy is gaining prominence as an essential element of statecraft, moving in lockstep with wider developments in the global landscape - the proliferation of diplomatic actors, emergence and spread of new technologies and the rising influence of informed and connected public audiences. Global public audiences have expanded their interest and involvement in international policy-making and as diplomacy's wider agenda has become 'enmeshed in the public domain' (Kelley 2010, 289). Described most simply by Jan Melissen (2013, 192) as 'diplomatic engagement with people,' public diplomacy is an evolving social endeavour. Today's most effective approaches emphasise relationship building over messaging, coordination over control, and interactions that build on mutual understanding and shared values among nations and peoples (Zaharna 2009; Fitzpatrick 2013, 30). Notably, public diplomacy is no longer an instrument that sits exclusively with states. Rather, it offers scope for a range of contemporary diplomatic actors to understand, inform, involve and influence diverse public audiences as they prosecute their interests on the global stage. Bruce Gregory (2011, 353) captures public diplomacy's emerging social underpinnings and plurilateral relevance when he describes it as an 'instrument used by states, associations of states, and some sub-state and non-state actors to understand cultures, attitudes and behaviour; build and manage relationships; and influence thoughts and mobilize actions to advance their interests and values'.

Zaharna, Fisher and Arsenault (2013, vii) add a distinctly twenty-first century lens noting that public diplomacy's success 'depends on the ability of practitioners to forge positive and productive connections to individuals and groups embedded …within vast, commonly transnational networks'. For Jan Melissen (2011) the potential for public diplomacy is accentuated in the polylateral world of multiple actors and diverse international networks. However networks also bring new challenges, particularly when they give rise to interests that might test or compete with national interests. Fisher hints at the need to negotiate new parameters for public diplomacy that might be applied to 'complex scenarios with common problems that require cooperative approaches and international collaboration involving non-state or non-geographically located actors'. He points to the earlier work of Geoffrey Cowan and Amelia Arsenault (2008), which suggests that collaboration 'can sometimes be the most important form of public diplomacy'.

Multilateralism offers a pathway towards understanding collaborative public diplomacy. Pagovski (2015) confirms that 'multilateral institutions are increasing their use of public diplomacy and other communications tools in order to promote better understanding and sustainable relationships with target audiences'. There is a discernible shift in emphasis and interests at play. As Jan Melissen suggests, 'when national governments practice public diplomacy they are mostly focused on their own national interest. However, when joint governments conduct public diplomacy, the broader interests of those states, regions, and the world are emphasized'. This shift has become evident in the public diplomacy of a number of international organisations including the European Union (EU), the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO) and even the Association of South East Asian States (ASEAN). Each of these have developed their public diplomacy purpose and strategy as a reflection of the collective identity of the member states, projected and maintained through the official secretariat (Pagovski 2015; Davis Cross 2013).

Each of these developments holds significance for public diplomacy's emerging multilateral consciousness and offers potential for the G20; an actor with global aspirations and interests, that is seeking to change the odds in global governance. Over recent years, the G20 has also begun to develop public diplomacy approaches to advance its non-crisis agenda of structural economic reform and global economic growth. However, the informal nature of the G20 with its diverse membership presents a unique case study of public diplomacy in which the collective identity and interest of the group is less certain, and the narrative produced from year to year appears heavily influenced by the hosting nation.

G20 Public Diplomacy: An Evolving Project

As the 'premier international forum for cooperation on global economic governance, the G20 holds a significant, contemporary role on the global stage. Its unconventional composition of twenty 'systemically significant economies' represents current economic realities, and a sizeable portion of global capabilities and connectivity (Kirton 2013). Its informal structure, nomadic tendencies and ability to attract global leaders to the table each year brings the potential for agility and effectiveness otherwise lacking in the lethargic and bureaucratic global governance architecture. From its nascent beginnings, the G20 mandate has emphasised economic cooperation as a means 'to achieve stable and sustainable world economic growth that benefits all' (G7 Finance Ministers 1999, emphasis added). This core mandate holds true in the post-crisis environment, and the G20's emphasis on structural economic reform and growth sets the necessary foundation for policy change on a range of other social, environmental and security agendas.

The scope and impact of the G20 agenda has led inevitably to the outreach and engagement of external public audiences: including major and regional institutions, social partners and the citizens of G20 and non-G20 nations; a process that has evolved with each presidency. The engagement of social partners also known as 'the 20s' has become the most prominent form of G20 public diplomacy (Harris-Rimmer 2014, Slaughter 2016). Since 2010 the G20 has incrementally expanded engagement to involve representatives of the business (B20), labour (L20), think-tank (T20) civil society (C20), women (W20) and young people (Y20). Under the recent presidencies of Australia (2014) and Turkey (2015) and the current leadership of China, the G20 has implemented a more formal approach to engagement, embedding public diplomacy firmly into the G20 persona. Though early days, the gradual widening of the G20's social engagements reflects effective public diplomacy. These platforms offer the potential of new ideas and fresh thinking in the public policy debate, can help to build requisite momentum for political change, and minimise external hostility to the G20 agenda. Although as Meryem Aslan (2015, 17) points out, civil society organisations have a longstanding association with the G20, utilising dialogue, popular petitions, street demonstrations, and even the alternative 'People's Summit' to make their views known to its representatives from outside the process. G20 interactions with the defined social partners demonstrates broad, though uneven alignment of public diplomacy functions, adapted by Pagovski (2015, 11-12) for the multilateral context to include: listening, advocacy, engagement and evaluation.

a) Listening

Listening is the most fundamental of public diplomacy functions, and it underpins the legitimacy of today's G20 agenda. As Australia's G20 Sherpa, Heather Smith (2014, 5) affirms, 'The G20's decisions affect the 4.6 billion citizens across its membership, and many more beyond. It is only natural then that the G20 should consult widely beyond governments, and listen to the people whose lives, opportunities and livelihoods we want to improve.' More recently, China's foreign minister Wang Yi explicitly reinforced the G20 listening function, noting that in 2016 'China will also widely listen to voices from all walks of life and forge the broadest consensus'. Opportunities for listening are demonstrated across a range of formal and inform interactions including scheduled sherpa consultations, conferences and communiqués. In 2015, Turkey utilised online social media campaigns to widen public opportunity for input. Yet, while the listening inputs are clearly demonstrated, the impact of listening, particularly in terms of G20 policy proposals, is far less clear. Furthermore, to critique China's approach, the broadest consensus may not be the right public diplomacy fit for today's complex world. Rather, listening that can bring a multiplicity of voices and potential solutions to the fore, though difficult to facilitate and interpret is likely to provide a more effective outcome.

b) Advocacy

Greater emphasis is placed by the G20 on public diplomacy's second function, advocacy, intended to 'actively promote a particular policy, idea or…[the] actors general interests in the minds of the foreign public' (Cull 2008, 18). Indeed, G20 effectiveness relies on the decisions and actions of national governments within their own domestic or constitutive spheres; a task made easier when the public understands and supports the same measures. Out of all of the engagement groups, the B20 plays the most visible and explicit advocacy role, promoting the G20's economic agenda towards both G20 and non-G20 audiences. In 2014 Australia's Treasurer, Joe Hockey used his G20 platform to call on business to 'become preachers for change'. The B20 utilises three key mechanisms to carry out its advocacy: i) domestic and international business associations to build conversations, ii) influential members of the CEO Forums, B20 taskforces, summit participants as champions of the B20 recommendations; and iii) the B20 chair and sherpa in an external advocacy role towards non G20 countries.

In fulfilling this function, the B20 has become a partner and co-producer of the G20's economic agenda. This partnering role brings obvious public diplomacy benefits. Firstly, business is well placed to explain and interpret the mechanics of G20's economic growth agenda. The B20 can leverage the fact that business is often seen as more skilled, more efficient and more globally savvy, particularly in economic policy (Reinhard 2009, 195). Secondly an influential business presence sustains political engagement in the G20 process. However, there are also significant risks. For example, despite the G20's emphasis on small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and even micro business, B20 leadership is dominated by representatives of big business, including from across the retail, banking consulting, petrochemicals, mining, and pharmaceuticals sectors. The optics alone suggest that the interests of elite global business may take precedence, potentially to the detriment of the SMEs and the wider G20 'benefits for all' agenda. Bringing balance and transparency to the B20 as it continues in this advocacy role is critical.

c) Engagement

The third function, engagement, refers to the process of relationship-building with influencers and target audiences to improve understanding, while shaping policy formulation and delivery. Effective engagement serves to humanize its otherwise alien policy objectives, facilitating avenues for dialogue and collaborative problem solving, particularly on shared issues like climate change or global health responses. Each of the G20 engagement groups brings public diplomacy advantages when it comes to both advocacy and engagement functions. They are all seen as more credible than the G20 member governments in different spheres. Civil society representatives in particular trade on greater trust and have a wider reach into the lives of far more people around the world (Nye 2008, 105). They present as a distinct public diplomacy asset for the G20. However, at present, engagement of these groups are underutilised and constrained.

Different G20 presidents will seek to put their national stamp on the G20's engagement activities while regional contours can impact on the nature and effectiveness of outreach and engagement. However, the G20 troika provides some guidance. Deeper analysis reveals that there are more similarities than differences between each year. Engagement processes tend to be highly centralised, structured and controlled by the host nation, usually operating as linear silos of interaction, for example the W20 representatives meet separately to the B20 or the C20 and so on. While some cross-over occurs between the engagement groups and with the host government the practice is ad hoc and ultimately controlled from the top-down. While it is not uncommon for individuals to participate in more than one, or move between engagement groups over time, ameliorate the lack of interaction, such practice also leads to a pattern of outreach partner 'recycling', and limits overall engagement outcomes.

d) Evaluation

While there is no formal evaluation of G20 public diplomacy, this fourth function is taken up to some degree within and outside the G20 network. A range of key actors including from within the T20, Transparency International, the International Chamber of Commerce and the University of Toronto's G20 Research Centre, all contribute to different and essential evaluations of G20 activities and their effectiveness. Increasing attention is being paid through various evaluative and academic studies to the nature and conduct of outreach and engagement. However, as yet there has been little systemic review applying a public diplomacy framework of analysis. The absence of a mechanism for evaluating G20 public diplomacy is not surprising given its incremental evolution and penetration of the consciousness. However, when viewed in light of overall ad hoc and fragmented nature G20 public diplomacy, it highlights longer-term implications for G20 legitimacy and effectiveness.

Public Diplomacy: A Communicative Process

Public diplomacy is more the sum of its functions. Rather, effective public diplomacy promotes a dualistic qualitative tension that both reflects and generates the identity, values and policies of an actor. A legitimate and credible public diplomacy strategy is only possible if it directly reflects the identity of the people it represents (Davis Cross 2013, 6). This interaction holds relevance for the G20 whereby identity underpins legitimacy and vice versa.

Notably, the G20 is increasingly under pressure to address questions and criticisms that strike at the core of its identity and what it stands for in the world. Yet, by virtue of its informal and diverse nature–spanning geographic spheres, historical experiences, cultures and societal values, economic systems, political organisation, languages, religions and demographics, and in the absence of a formal secretariat–the G20 struggles to articulate a cohesive or accessible identity. Shifts within its current role from global crisis management towards peacetime steering committee, and the rotating influence of each hosting nation further blur the G20 identity. While officials, IGOs and social partners are likely to have a nuanced, if incomplete perspective of the G20, ordinary citizens struggle to see the G20 as much more than a 'pointless talkfest' (Reece 2014) or worse still, an irritating traffic disruption (Craw 2014). The values represented tend to resonance for ordinary people. As the rise of populist politics and protectionist sentiment threatens confidence in the global system, gaps in the G20's identity may translate into a larger issue for global governance.

For an actor like the G20 public diplomacy the communicative process of engagement establishes, develops and projects identity. It is, 'essentially the communication of narratives that embody key norms about a society' gives clues to its identity and to the values that guide its behaviour and interactions on the global stage (Davis Cross 2013, 4). The more appealing these narratives and norms appear to external audiences, the more open those audiences, and their respective governments, will be to their influence. This is the essence of soft power. This paper suggests that the G20's public diplomacy suffers from gaps in the strategic design of its communicative process and identifies a two practical steps for responding to these gaps: i) aligning the G20 narrative more closely to the United Nation's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development; and ii) taking greater advantage of the emerging multi-hub, network engagement environment. Both approaches rely on stronger, coordinated and cohesive leadership of the G20 troika.

Firstly, complementarity between the G20 agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides an important touchstone for the G20. The 2030 Agenda, agreed by the 193 member states of the UN in September 2015 sets out 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets to be achieved over 15 years. It not only brings global legitimacy, but also holds axiomatic relevance for the G20 narrative, 'to achieve stable and sustainable world economic growth that benefits all'. G20 political leaders consistently reaffirm this narrative. For example, when taking on G20 leadership China's President Xi Jinping stated that the G20's ultimate goal is to 'ensure people live a better life'. In November 2014, Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott closed the Brisbane Summit noting that: '…because of the efforts that the G20 has made this year…, people right around the world are going to be better off and that's what it's all about: it is about the people of the world being better off through the achievement of inclusive growth and jobs'. Similarly, when opening the inaugural W20 dialogue platform, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davotoglu confirmed "… we need your contribution, we need your sense of conscience of humanity, we need your mercy and the G20 needs your contribution for a just economic global order." Later, as the Antalya Summit drew to a close Turkish President Erdogan reminded audiences that the 'G20 should contribute to efforts to address rising inequalities, as well as injustices in various areas'. Although common within the G20 political rhetoric , this narrative is not always visible through other official G20 public diplomacy messages or processes.

Given that G20 progress towards sustainable economic growth underpins progress towards achieving the SDGs, alignment between the two agendas reflect integrated global policy development, help to bring focus or at least minimise the potential for G20 agenda creep, and confirm the G20's complementary (rather than competitive) relationship with the UN and wider global governance system. It might also contribute to the G20's non-crisis narrative beyond the promotion of global capitalism as 'a political forum for creating and performing visible responses to problems which are seen to be socially responsive' (Slaughter 2015, 384). Evidence of this alignment is already visible within the C20 proposal and could usefully frame the Leaders' Communiqué. More substantive commitments at the policy level would be helpful to engage major IGOs and social partners in integrated policy thinking, while building understanding in the wider citizenry of G20 and non-G20 nations.

The second step required requires a longer view and relates to the design of engagement processes. The official operations of the G20 already revolve around a dense multi-hub network environment that operates to connect officials, regulators and diplomats in the policy formulation and deliberation processes from year to year (Kirton 2013, 468-470; Kelly and Cho 2012; Slaughter 2016).

A similar network structure has also evolved around outreach and engagement partnerships with reach into and across diverse sectors and geographies, yet remains under-utilised. It is precisely through engagement of complex multi-hub, multidirectional, networked environment of the twenty-first century that the G20 is likely to gain greater credibility, influence and exposure for the policy agenda it seeks to promote. As Zaharna (2013, 173) notes, networks can provide the optimal environment not only for connecting, but also sharing information, and through the process of those interactions for generating knowledge, innovation and synergistic results'. However, there are challenges and risks associated with so-called network public diplomacy, including the levels of control, purpose and coordination required. Some networks emerge and flourish organically without strategic design or management. However, there is value in exploring the potential of a network approach, 'to monitor and foster more effective network and collaborative initiatives' (Zaharna 2013, 189). Such an approach, if incorporated into broader public diplomacy strategy may ultimately work in the favour of the G20 and wider global governance reform.

G20 public diplomacy has developed, albeit unevenly to meet key functional requirements. While the troika has usefully enabled the incremental development, the influence of each host nations is also evident. The host's influence in establishing the parameters for public diplomacy, though an appealing dimension of the role, may ultimately prove counterproductive to G20 legitimacy and effectiveness. Building a strategic long-term public confidence and trust requires significant and coherent leadership. To this end the role of the troika, with input from key social partners is encouraged.


Convening and coordinating multi-dimensional policy responses in a messy environment of many actors, issues and interests is the core challenge for the G20. While the G20 fulfils the functions of public diplomacy, it does so unevenly, and lacking in any strategic design. More can be done to improve and demonstrate the G20's listening capacity, rebalance its advocacy approach, engage the vast transnational public network structure in integrated problem-solving approach, and evaluate the public dimensions of its diplomacy. Furthermore, by viewing public diplomacy as a communicative process underpinning its identity and legitimacy offers further opportunities for the strategic redesign of G20 public diplomacy. Key measures include the emphasis of complementarity between the G20 agenda and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable growth alongside the activation and facilitation of engagement networks are suggested to building the relevance of G20 within the consciousness of global public audiences, while engaging social partners and IGOs more creatively in the task of advocacy, problem solving and evaluation. Both shifts require a shared leadership approach. Ultimately, by taking advantage of integrated and progressive public diplomacy approaches the G20 might play an effective dual role as both an actor and instrument of global governance reform.


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