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The United Nations, Global Economic Governance
and the G20

Professor John Kirton
G20 Research Group, University of Toronto
December 11, 2015

Lecture prepared for delivery at the University of Leuven, Belgium, Thursday, December 10, 2015. I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Julia Kulik in the preparation of this lecture. Version of August 25, 2016.



When today’s United Nations was created in 1945, it came with what its founders saw as two central councils to govern all its inherited and new component institutions and issues in a comprehensive, coherent way. The first was the familiar United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which many consider the centre of the UN system to this day. The second was the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), mandated to help create peaceful and friendly relations by promoting "higher standards of living, full employment and conditions of economic and social progress and development" (UN Charter, Article 55).

From the start, however, ECOSOC was smothered by the Bretton Wood twins of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank born the year before, and later by the plurilateral Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 1960 and the Group of Seven (G7) of 1975. The great global financial crisis of 2008 then highlighted the profound failure of this inherited firmament to act as an effective, legitimate centre of global economic governance. The crisis thus gave the UN a brief window of opportunity to take centre stage — either with a reinvigorated or reformed ECOSOC or a new economic security council that German chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier proposed. But the opening was quickly filled by another body — the new plurilateral, now summit institution of the Group of Twenty (G20) systemically significant states, which a year later saw its leaders choose it as the permanent, premier centre for their international economic cooperation.

The Debate Among Competing Schools of Thought

Was this the right choice? Should they have chosen the G20 to become the effective, legitimate, central body for global economic governance, ideally working cooperatively with the UN in a mutually supportive way? That central question of global economic governance has given rise to an ongoing debate among six competing schools of thought.

The first school advocated a competitive conquering of the new G20 usurper by the old UN. It saw a zero-sum competition between the new, self-selected, informal and thus illegitimate G20 and the established, universal, legalized and thus legitimate UN (Aslund 2009; Wade and Vestergaard 2010; Kirton 2013, 5-6). This school flourished when the G20 summit first arose, especially in the UN General Assembly in the policy world.

The second school advocated the cooptive capture of the G20 by the UN. In 2009 the Commission of Experts of the President of the UN General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System specifically recommended that the G20 become a component coordination centre within the UN.

The third school argued that the G20 should become a UN supporter by providing the funding, institutional strengthening and reform that the UN could not secure on its own from its member states. In 2015 G20 co-founder Paul Martin called for the G20 summit to implement its agreed but overdue reform of the IMF’s voice and vote, fund the UN humanitarian organizations such as the World Food Programme and UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) amidst the massive refugee crisis that could breed terrorism if not addressed. He similarly pointed to the need to support the UN in health, cyberspace and above all climate change. He did so in the lead-up to the G20’s Antalya Summit in mid November 2015, held a short two weeks before the landmark UN one in Paris on climate change.

The fourth school saw broader, more reciprocal complementarity between the UN and G20. Russell Trood in 2013 argued that informal bodies such as the G20 could assist in crisis response and stimulate reform in a way that the formal, multilateral institutions like the UN could not. The G20’s role was not “to usurp the responsibilities of more formally established representative institutions, but rather to facilitate and serve the process of decision-making within the established multilateral architecture” (Trood 2013, 158). The G20 had a “unique capacity” to perform this role due to its informality, combination of a large part of the global community and “network of business, civil society and academic institutions.” Trood thus argued that the G20’s limited engagement with the UN should be more comprehensive, going beyond its cautious, respectful starting point on international and domestic finance. Similarly, in his 2011 report, British prime minister David Cameron asked the G20 to be “more effective, transparent and consistent in building relationships with formal institutions.”

The fifth school saw closer cooperation between the UN and G20, both as a prescription and increasingly in practice in the years after the great financial crisis of 2008-09. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon consistently argued that both bodies needed to work more closely together, both because the G20 summit was here to stay and offered enhanced “opportunities for better global governance” (Trood 2013, 158).

The sixth school saw the G20 increasing as a UN replacement for the position of effective, legitimate centre of global governance. This extended over an ever expanding set of governance functions and policy fields, and with the UN supporting this G20 centrality due to the major failures the UN recognized it had and could not solve on its own. John Kirton (2013) argued that this replacement was due to the growing shock-activated vulnerabilities harming systemically significant countries and the failure of the major multilateral organizations to predict, prevent or respond to them. The global financial crises of 1997 and 2008 and then the euro crisis of 2010 first showed this failure of the IMF, World Bank and UN. So did the energy and food crises of 2008, the first coming in a field where the UN had no dedicated functional organization and the latter in a field where it had three, all headquartered in Rome. Then came the interrelated and other economically related shocks and vulnerabilities from Syria’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 and migration, cyberspace and terrorism in 2015, where the UNHCR, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and UNSC again clearly failed. The greatest vulnerability and UN failure arose on the newly central economic challenge of climate change, where effective global governance had come first from the G7 and more recently from the G20 (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015).


All of these schools make useful contributions, if ones more of a normative and prescriptive rather than an analytical and empirical kind. But they all present puzzles, such as why the G20 at its Antalya Summit in November 2015 did so little to help the UN succeed on climate change at its 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) meeting in December, as the sixth school argued the G20 had done for the COPS meetings before. Moreover, none of these schools are based on a comprehensive, contemporary, systematic study of the relationship between the G20 and UN in global economic governance in the 21st-century world. This study takes up that task.

The Thesis of Growing G20 Centrality with UN Support

This study argues that the G20 has been steadily replacing the UN as the centre of global economic governance, and doing so with the support of the UN. This is due first to the growing shock-activated vulnerability of the systemically significant states; second, to the massive multilateral organizational failure of the UN in response; and, third, to the UN's refusal to meet regularly at the leaders level to deal with core economic issues such as sustainable development and climate change in an intensely interconnected world.

This central argument rests on five component claims.

First, in its institutional design the G20 as a 21st-century international institution is inherently more legitimate and potentially effective as a centre of global economic governance in a now globalized world than the UN of 1945 is or can be.

Second, in practice the G20 summit has developed a closer, more co-operative relationship with the UN, in a way that the latter body now supports. However, this process has recently stalled, even as the G20’s agenda has broadened to embrace the social, sustainable development and now political security subjects long thought to be at the core of the UN’s mission and Charter but increasingly integrated with economics in a globalized world.

Third, as the G20 summit has become an increasingly effective centre of global economic governance, it has largely shown that it does not want to support of the UN as a summit participant, does not support the UN in its development of global governance, but benefits from UN support when G20 members’ comply with the summit commitments their leaders’ make.

Fourth, the G20 is increasingly developing a new generation of global governance on its own with some success, while the UN left alone largely fails, as the critical cases of ISIL terrorism, Syrian refugees and above all climate change show.

Fifth, the Chinese host’s priorities and plans for the next G20 summit in Hangzhou, on September 4-5, 2016, suggests that this trend will continue. This is despite China’s initial public devotion to having its G20 support the UN’s delivery of the latter’s new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sixth, this study concludes by noting that the decline in G20 Summit performance in 2014 and 2015 has coincided with its recently reduced support for the UN during this time. It thus asks what causation and corrections may exist.

The G20 as a 21st-Century Institution

The first claim is that in its institutional design the G20 of 1999 is a more legitimate and potentially effective institution for global economic governance now than the UN of 1945 was, has become or can be.

The UN 1945

In the case of the UN there are six key causes for its poor performance in global economic governance since its 1945 start.

First, the UN was born after the IMF and World Bank in 1944. These Bretton Woods twins had more power and resources, were always headed by a European and American respectively and headquartered within walking distance of the White House, US Treasury and Federal Reserve in Washington DC, the capital city of an economically hegemonic United States.

Second, the UN galaxy, unlike its League of Nations parent, was deliberately created as an incomplete, siloed system, with no one, not even the UN secretary general as the “chief administrative officer,” in charge of coordinating all its parts (Ikenberry 2001). This left the UN in New York with no real authority over the Bretton Woods bodies in Washington and limited influence on most of the functional agencies in Geneva, Paris, London and Montreal.

Third, in the definition of the distinctive mission of the UN, the economic purposes and parts of the UN Charter from San Francisco and thus the economic parts of the new headquarters in New York were an afterthought. They were secondary and subordinated to the security functions and council that took pride of place. In the Charter’s preamble, war arose in the first phrase and sentence, while economics was left to the sixth — “to employ international machinery for the promotion of economic and social advancement of all peoples.” In the Articles, peace and security again came first and economics only third, “To achieve international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural or humanitarian character” (A1-3). In the outline of the institutional organs in Article 7, the General Assembly came first, the UNSC Second, and ECOSOC only third. Unlike the Security Council with its same Permanent Five unit veto members from the major powers, ECOSOC had all elected ones, which the General Assembly regularly chose and changed. Moreover, Article 65 mandated ECOSOC to “assist the Security Council upon its request” but imposed no equal reciprocal obligation on the UNSC.

Fourth, the Charter spoke repeatedly about the permanent subordinate status of the enemy, alien, aggressor states, led by Japan and Germany. This was understandable for a charter drafted in 1945 in San Francisco on the Pacific coast of the United States. But it left little legal space for the UN to mobilize the full resources of Japan and Germany when three decades later these became the second- and third-ranked economic powers in the world.

Fifth, the UN was created as and remained for it first decade a plurilateral body with a deliberately restricted membership, embracing only part of the countries in the world. Only after the Canadian-brokered new membership breakthrough in 1955 and the ensuing wave of decolonization did it move toward universal membership in principle and practice. But it took about three decades before the People’s Republic of China became a member, in contrast to Canada and Belgium who have loved the UN from the inside for more than 70 years since the very start.

Sixth, after its San Francisco start, the leaders of UN member countries never met, leaving its overall regular governance in the hands of subordinate ministers, their officials and the Charter by which they were bound. When 45 years later the UN rediscovered the value of summitry, for children in New York in 1990 followed by the environment and development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it spent its subsequent 25 years of summitry on social, environmental, health and above all development subjects. It never held a summit dedicated to the economy. Nor did the IMF or World Bank. Only with a few of the SDGs adopted in September 2015 did the UN start to move this way.

In short, the UN as a global economic governor has been so weak since its start that the real puzzle is not why the G20 so easily superseded it in 1999 and 2008 but what real resources the UN has to contribute to the G20’s global economic governance now.

The G20 1999

In all of the basic features identified above, the G20 is fundamentally different from the UN, especially in regard to those needed for effective, legitimate global economic governance in the globalized twenty first century world.

First, the G20’s distinctive mission, standing at the core of its inherent legitimacy, is to promote financial stability and to make globalization work for the benefit of all. The UN’s closest equivalent came in its charter’s sixth-place reference to “the promotion of the economic advancement of all peoples.” The global public good of financial stability was entirely absent from the UN Charter, where the memory of the Great Depression of the 1930s had left little trace.

Second, the G20’s membership, composed of “systemically significant” states, was defined carefully according to the criteria of both capability and connectivity, with geographic representation and domestic democracy having a secondary but still consequential place. Its 20 selected and 19 actual permanent members were far more in number and geographic representativeness than the five that secured permanent UNSC seats in 1945. Unlike the UNSC's Permanent Five (P5) members, who are unchanged after 70 years, the G20’s permanent members were dominated by democratic polities. They also contained three or four Muslim-majority states — Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, with Nigeria also selected in the initial design.

When it begins its second decade of operating at the leaders’ level in 2018, the G20 might match the UN in 1955 by considering the principle and practice of universality and even adding the equivalent of a General Assembly as an empirical expression. But this would constitute a declaration of war on the UN. It would be far better for the G20 to use the existing UN General Assembly in a closer, more mutually supportive way.

Participation at the G20 summits has steadily expanded, in the number and diversity of countries and international institutions invited and agreeing to attend. From the start, the IMF and World Bank have always been there as permanent members. They come as universal organizations from the 1944 creation to represent all countries in the world. The ever expanding European Union has also always come, showing that democracy — as distinct from geography — matters much. The other regional organizations subsequently added as invited participants embraced many of the smaller, poorer otherwise unrepresented countries in the world. But a few more, such as the Commonwealth and Francophonie, could be added, as they were not at Antalya in 2015, in order to include those very poor countries such as Haiti that are still left out.

The level at which the G20 meets leapt to that of leaders after a decade of operating with finance ministers and central bank governors alone. This mattered a great deal. Leaders alone bring a unique comprehensiveness, coherence, creativity, flexibility, authority and legitimacy in the governance that they produce. These assets have been there since 1944-45 within the world’s most powerful country the United States. Here even the most important cabinet ministers, for finance and foreign affairs, are merely appointed employees of the leaders, with no direct domestic electoral mandate of their own of any kind. These assets are even more important in a 21st-century world that is so intensely interconnected in so many ways, including among issues across the finance-economic, sustainable development and political security spheres.

In its frequency of summit meetings, the G20 has mounted ten in the first seven years of its leaders-level life. This is much more than the UN’s post-1990 periodicity of similarly meeting every five years to deal with specific subjects such as the environment or development, as with the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) summits in September 2000, 2005, 2010 and then the successor SDGs in 2015. Yet after meeting twice a year in its first two years, the G20 dropped to half-time work, meeting only once a year since 2010. This fits poorly with the demands for ongoing global economic governance in today’s face-paced world. The demands for such governance were not cut in half after 2010.

The G20’s Close, Cooperative Relationship with the UN, 2008-2015

The second component claim is that the G20 summit has developed a closer more cooperative relationship with the UN, and done so in a way that the UN now supports. However, this process has recently stalled, even as the G20’s agenda has steadily broadened to embrace the social, sustainable development and then political security subjects such as terrorist finance, corruption, weapons of mass destruction in Syria and terrorism, such subjects have long been thought to lie at the core of the UN’s mission and Charter now are but increasingly integrated with economics in a globalized, digitalworld.

The G20 Summit’s Creation and UN Contribution

In the beginning of the G20 summit's creation in September 2008, it and the UN were direct competitors in the race to become the central forum to lead the global economic governance response to the great financial crisis that had struck the United States and the world then (Kirton 2013, 227-67). Indeed, the UN had the lead, as it was physically right there, in New York City on September 15, 2008, when the Lehman Brothers investment bank died and the global economic explosion began. At the UN General Assembly a few days later arose the first proposals for a summit to respond. One proposal came from the president of the General Assembly, who included the idea as part of his long rambling speech. Another came on September 23 from French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who suggested a summit of the G7 along and a few big emerging states. After a month of intense diplomacy, U.S. president George W. Bush decided that the summit response would come from the G20 as a whole. Yet to the summit he hosted in Washington in November, he invited the UN secretary general. In the beginning, the G20's victory over its UN competitor was thus strong.

The UN's involvement in G20 summitry continued the second G20 summit, hosted by British prime minister Gordon Brown in London on April 1-2, 2009 (Kirton 2013, 274, 289). But UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s central initiative — for a $1 trillion-plus stimulus package — was seen by the British chair as disruptive rather than helpful. Only a proposal on green growth, produced with difficulty within the UN, may have helped the G20 start on the path to address sustainable development and climate change control.

The G20’s Growing Effectiveness, Especially Working with the UN

The third component claim is that the G20 summit has become an increasingly effective centre of global economic governance, especially largely working without the UN.

The G20’s performance can be systematically assessed according to six dimensions of global governance. Together they show a relatively steady rise, until a dip in 20014 and 2015. The changing relationship with the UN can be evaluated by carefully charting three of these key dimensions: first, attendance at the summit by invited non-member countries and international organizations; second, G20 communiqué references to developing global governance through outside international organizations including UN bodies; and, third, compliance with the G20 commitments that refer to the UN, relative to those that do not.

Invited Summit Attendance

On the first dimension — summit attendance — the UN in the person of the secretary general arrived for the second summit and returned for every one since. Ban Ki-moon’s involvement and influence were greatest on green growth and climate change, where he worked in support of Mexico’s Felipe Calderon.

At the third summit, in Pittsburgh in September 2009, Guy Ryder, director general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), also arrived, along with the heads of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the OECD. Ryder returned for every summit to assist the G20’s microeconomic work on employment and labour standards. But no other heads of UN specialized agencies or programs were invited to attend.

Development of Global Governance Outside with UN

On the second dimension — the institutional development of global governance — the G20 summits have been outward looking since their start. This is seen in their communiqué references to bodies outside their own G20 ones (see Appendix A).

The number of such references increased rather steadily from only 39 at Washington in 2008 to peak at 237 at Seoul in November 2010 and 246 at St. Petersburg in September 2013. But it then plummeted to low levels close to that at Washington with only 42 at Brisbane in November 2014 and 62 at Antalya in November 2015. It seems that after Vladimir Putin’s St. Petersburg Summit in September 2013 and his invasion of Ukraine six months later, the G20 largely gave up on the UN and sought to build global governance on its own, within its own increasing institutions and otherwise outside UN ones.

The outside bodies receiving G20 communiqué references have been largely led by the two that have been authorized de facto members of the G20 since its 1999 start — the IMF in first place with 267 references overall and the World Bank in fifth with 122. The combined categories of the international financial institutions have 25, multilateral development banks have 65, and the Bretton Woods institutions withtwo, to supplement the IMF and World Bank’s lead. However, the UN as a G20 non-member and missing participant in 2008 still stands third with 149 references overall. It comes behind the IMF and the G20’s own Financial Stability Board (FSB) with 158, but ahead of the fourth-placed OECD.

The UN started in fourth place, tied with the WTO in 2008. The UN then fell to eighth at London in 2009, returned to sixth at Pittsburgh in 2009, and slid to fifth at Toronto in 2010. Then it soared to first at Seoul in November 2010 when the first non-G7 member served as G20 host and the development agenda took centre stage. It continued in first at Cannes in 2011, when G7 member France hosted and Sarkozy had begun his year wanting the G20 to reform the UN, including its Security Council. It slid to second place at Los Cabos in 2012 and to sixth at St. Petersburg in 2013. It bounced back to fourth at Brisbane in 2014 and tied for second at Antalya in 2015.

This pattern shows that the G20 sometimes sees the UN as important and even central. But the pronounced volatility suggests that the G20 has not developed a stable view of what its relationship with the UN should be. It also shows that despite the French exception in 2011, the UN ranks highest when non-G8 members serve as G20 host.

Beyond the UN itself, the older ILO is the only other body from the broad UN galaxy of functional organizations that appears in the G20 summit’s main communiqués. It stands ninth, with 37 references overall. Its best summits came from Pittsburgh, hosted by U.S. president Barack Obama with his labour union domestic political base, to St. Petersburg when it peaked at seven. It then fell to one in 2014 and two in 2015, despite the importance of employment and labour standards on the leaders’ agenda there.

The absence of any references to any other UN body is surprising, especially since the G20 summit’s agenda has broadened to embrace issues such as food and climate change where UN functional organizations and other entities are highly relevant. This includes the World Health Organization (WHO) on health over Ebola in 2014 and the UNHCR on refugees in 2015. Yet WHO remained absent from the main communiqué in 2014, even if it appeared twice and the World Health Assembly once in the separately issued G20 Leaders’ Brisbane Statement on Ebola. As Ebola was a major issue at Brisbane and refugees at Antalya, the G20 seems intent on governing these shocks and their ensuing vulnerabilities with little or no reference to the UN in its most relevant functional parts.

Compliance with UN-Referenced Commitments

On the third and perhaps most important performance dimension — members’ compliance with G20 summits commitments — on the economically critical issue of climate change compliance since 2008 G20 performance averaged 68% (Hudson 2015). This is close to the 73% average of the older G7/8 since it invented global climate change governance in 1979. It is also close to the 73% average of the G7 members within the G20 since 2008 (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015).

The UN is useful in enhancing G20 members’ compliance with their G20 commitments on climate change. G20 commitments on the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the core international legal instrument with an accompanying institution on climate change — have the highest compliance of all at 76%. Commitments on general climate change stand well below at second at 68%. Those on the new Green Climate Fund are third at 48%. In contrast, in the G7/8, compliance with general climate change commitments comes first at 74%, the UNFCCC a close second, other UN agencies or mechanisms third at 65%, and climate finance at 56%. These results are consistent with earlier work on finance and development issues, which shows that when the core international organization is embedded within the text of a G7/8 commitment, compliance with it rises (Kirton 2006). This suggests that the UN helps G20 leaders more effectively deliver their decisions, even on issues such as climate change where the core UN body is small and weak. It also implies that the G20 can reciprocally adopt and help deliver the UN commitments too.

This compliance-enhancing “UN effect” does not work equally for all G20 members. It works most for the EU and the United Kingdom, in both the G20 and G7/8. It works least for Russia, Italy and Saudi Arabia.

Taken together, this systematic review of three key dimensions of G20 performance supports the central argument advanced in this study. In the invited attendance at its summit, the G20 started with the IMF and World Bank, moved later to the UN and ILO, but did not add any other UN body for its first ten summits, even as issues such as food, health and refugees became important there and as the G20 guest list expanded to embrace countries and other international institutions of many different sorts. In its communiqué references to global governance institutions outside the G20, which are largely supportive ones, the summit has only twice put the UN first, often put it much lower, not invoked it in a stable way and given almost no attention to UN functional organization beyond the ILO, even when issues and thus institutions of health and refugees became key. In its members’ compliance with their G20 commitments, the G20 uses the UN’s support as the G20’s invocation of the UN in the G20 commitment does improve G20 effectiveness in the delivery domain.

In short, the G20 largely shows it does not want the support of the UN at its summit and does not support the UN in developing global governance, but benefits from UN support in G20 members’ compliance with the commitments their leaders make.

The Great Gap of Climate Change and Green Growth

The fourth component claim of this study is that the critical cases of sustainable development and climate change suggest there is still a great gap between the UN and the G20, on what are now the central economic challenges of our time (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015).

In the case of sustainable development, the UN at its summit in September 2015 made development a core economic issue, relative to its classically conceived, narrower predecessor MDGs from 2000. The 17 new SDGs included a few directly dealing with macroeconomic subjects and some, such as SDG 7 on energy, fully focused on a core economic issue for the world, including G20 members Saudi Arabia, Russia, Canada and Mexico on the producing side and the United States, China and Japan on the consumer side. These 17 now applied equally to all UN members. It remains to be seen how much the G20 will support the UN in implementing these SDGs.

In the case of climate change, this once separately framed environmental subject has now become a central economic one, as its severity and ensuing economic damage have proliferated. Thus the IMF and FSB became directly involved in global climate governance in 2015.

It was the G7, not the UN, that had invented global climate governance, doing so at the G7 summit in 1979 (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015). The G20 summit made an important contribution, starting at its Pittsburgh Summit in 2009, with its historic decision to phase out fossil fuel subsidies in the medium term of about six years. In contrast, when the UN was left alone to lead, development priorities dominated environmental ones and the climate change threat soared.

At their Antalya Summit in November 2015, G20 leaders failed to add much of apparent value to the global effort at climate change control. They left it to the UN summit in Paris two weeks later to solve the problem on its own. The prospective failure of the UN there, and the major economic damage that will follow, will again underscore the need for the G20’s global leadership in the effective control of climate change.

The Promising Prospects for Hangzhou 2016

The fifth component claim of this study is that the next G20 summit, in Hangzhou on September 4-5, 2016, suggests that this trend will continue and that G20 leadership o climate change will return.

At Hangzhou, a close, cooperative relationship between the G20 and UN should resume, with the G20 in the lead and the U.S. and Chinese presidents as the driving force within. In outlining his priorities and plans for the Hangzhou Summit on December 1, 2015, at the very start of China’s year as host, President Xi Jinping noted the important role of the G20 in development and his intention to “work with all other parties” as G20 host (Chinese G20 Presidency 2015). The 17-page statement set inclusiveness as one of it four themes. The statement contained pervasive references to development, developing countries, low-income developing countries and inclusiveness, across all the themes and issues it addressed.

Following Xi’s introduction, the statement made nine direct references to UN bodies or mechanisms (see Appendix B). They were led by the UNFCCC with three, the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development/Summit and the UN in general with two each, followed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the ILO with one each. It was notable that among the list of G20 partners, the UN was placed first, ahead of the IMF and World Bank, organizations that were founding members of the G20 itself.


China’s heavy emphasis on the UN and its SDGs as a priority for the G20’s 2016 summit suggests that a closer, mutually cooperative partnership between the UN and the G20 in global economic governance could finally emerge. This possibility is furthered by China’s heavy emphasis on having its G20 support the implementation of the UN’s SDGs, rather than having the UN support compliance with the G20’s commitments.

However, this is unlikely to be the dominant dynamic in the G20-UN relationship in 2016 (Kirton 2015). There are three reasons for this conclusion. First, China’s first priority is innovation for a fourth industrial revolution, a subject on which the UN has little to offer. Second, China’s emphasis is on institutionalizing the G20 itself or building UN-based regimes for central economic subjects such as supply chains in international trade, investment and energy. In energy, the high-level governance principles it introduced in Brisbane and advanced at Antalya were accompanied by the G20’s first energy ministers’ meeting in 2015 and China’s official declaration of the second in 2016. The G20 is thus ideationally pioneering global energy governance and institutionally introducing it within the G20, rather than combining and rendering comprehensive the oil-focused Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and the International Energy Agency and atomic energy–dedicated International Atomic Energy Agency of the UN. And third, China’s declared priorities of green growth and green finance, offered with limited reference to the UN, indicates it has little faith that the UN in Paris could mobilize the necessary money, leaving its G20 to do so on its own.

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References and Bibliography

Aslund, Anders (2009), “The Group of 20 Must Be Stopped,” Financial Times, November 26.

Cameron, David (2011), Governance for Growth: Building Consensus for the Future. Report to the G20 Cannes Summit 2011.

Chinese G20 Presidency (2015), “G20 Summit 2016: China.”

Commission of Experts of the President of the UN General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System (2009), Report of the Commission of Experts of the President of the UN General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, September 21, United Nations.

Hudson, Aurora (2015), “Complying with Global Summit Climate Change Commitments: G7, G20 and UN Performance,” December 1.

Ikenberry, G. John (2001), After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Kirton, John J. (2006). "Explaining Compliance with G8 Finance Commitments: Agency, Institutionalization, and Structure." Open Economies Review 17(4), pp. 459–75.

Kirton, John (2013), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate: Farnham).

Kirton, John (2015), “Innovative Implementation for Impact: Prospects and Proposals for China’s G20 Priorities in 2016.” Paper prepared for presentation at the T20 Kickoff Meeting, December 14-15, Beijing.

Kirton, John and Ella Kokotsis (2015), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Farnham: Ashgate).

Martin, Paul (2015), “G20 Must Give More Support to Multilateral Institutions,” in John Kirton and Madeline Koch, eds., G20 Turkey: The Antalya Summit November 2015 (London: Newsdesk Media),pp. 184-85.

Shorr, David and Thomas Wright (2010), “The G20 and Global Governance: An Exchange,” Survival 52 (April-May): 181-198.

Trood, Russell (2013), “G20: Reaching Out to the United Nations and the Global Community,” in John Kirton and Madeline Koch, eds., G20: The Russia Summit: St Petersburg September 2013 (London: Newsdesk Media), pp. 158-61.

Wade, Robert and Jacob Vestergaard (2010), “Judging the G20 by Output Ignores Input Problems,” Financial Times, October 22.

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Appendix A
Development of Global Governance: G20 Summits 2008-2015

Julia Kulik, November 30, 2015

Los Cabos
St. Petersburg
Total Rank
Total 39 120 115 164 237 251 142 246 42 62 1,418 319
International financial institutions 4 2 1 9 5 1 0 1 1 1 25 12
International Monetary Fund 11 36 35 35 31 45 22 32 11 9 267 1
World Bank 5 8 13 16 25 9 15 24 3 4 122 5
Multilateral development banks 2 8 6 15 17 9 3 1 2 2 65 7
Bretton Woods institutions 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 22
Financial Stability Forum 8 6 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 14 14
World Trade Organization 2 2 4 3 9 11 9 34 4 4 82 6
United Nations 2 3 9 7 33 51 16 16 3 9 149 3
Financial stability assessment programs 1 3 0 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 9 16
Financial Action Task Force 1 4 2 2 3 5 4 6 0 5 32 10
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 1 2 5 7 20 15 16 47 9 12 134 4
Financial Stability Board 0 19 10 25 24 33 20 19 3 5 158 2
Global Forum 0 3 2 2 3 9 3 16 0 0 38 8
Group of Eight 0 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 22
International Labour Organization 0 1 6 5 6 6 3 7 1 2 37 9
Basel Committee on Banking Supervision 0 6 0 11 5 2 0 1 0 0 25 12
Committee on the Global Financial System 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 25
Bank for International Settlements 0 1 0 0 1 4 2 2 0 1 11 15
International Accounting Standards Board 0 1 1 2 2 2 0 1 0 0 9 16
International Organization of Securities Commissions 0 3 2 1 5 11 4 6 0 0 32 10
Debt Sustainability Framework 0 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 22
Asian Development Bank 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 0 4 20
Inter-American Development Bank 0 1 1 4 1 0 0 0 0 0 7 18
African Development Bank 0 1 1 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 6 19
European Bank for Reconstruction and Development 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 3 21

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Appendix B
Direct References to United Nations Bodies in China’s G20 2016 Document

Total References by UN Body (9):
3  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
2  2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development/Summit
2  United Nations
1  Food and Agriculture Organization
1  International Labour Organization

Text of References to UN Bodies
1. “Advancing the Doha Development Agenda to achieve development-oriented outcomes and contributing to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

2. “The UN Sustainable Development Summit has endorsed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, calling for all countries to make joint efforts in eradicating poverty, promoting the coordinated development in economy, society and environment, narrowing the gap between the North and South, so as to achieve the shared development for all.”

3. “According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, world’s food production needs to be increased by 60% from 2005 to 2050 to meet the global food demand.”

4. “As parties to the UNFCCC, G20 members should follow the principles and rules of the UNFCCC, take active measures to implement the outcomes of the COP21 on climate financing and others, and provide dynamic political impetus to the continuing discussions under the framework of the UNFCCC on how to meet the demands of developing countries in climate financing.”

5. “China also expects continued contributions from international organizations, including the UN, IMF, World Bank, WTO, FSB, ILO and OECD.”

6. China will promote dialogues between the G20 and other international/regional organizations like the UN, Group of 77 and APEC, and will take the opportunities of international meetings to share ideas and to brief them on progress in the G20 agenda, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and the Boao Forum for Asia.”

Unit of analysis is the word, formal title or acronym
Includes UN specialized agencies such as the FAO, ILO
Exclude 2030 Agenda/COP21 if no reference to UN

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