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The G20 as the Global Focus Group:
Beyond the Crisis Committee/Steering Committee Framework

Andrew F. Cooper,
professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo,
and Distinguished Fellow, CIGI
June 19, 2012

The debate has long raged over when — and whether — the G20 can move from being a crisis committee to being a steering committee. For the first four G20 summits, in Washington DC in 2008, London and Pittsburgh in 2009, and Toronto in 2010, there was a clear imperative that the G20 would concentrate on the crisis committee component. Jolted into action by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the fallout from the collapse of the U.S. sub-prime market, and the collective dive of global stock markets and confidence, the G20 dealt with the danger by seeking safety through a concert-like approach. In a marked shift from previous recessions, key countries signalled their willingness to work together on a global basis. Discarding the mantra of like-mindedness, this new arrangement brought together countries from the old establishment in the G8 and the cluster of pivotal systemically important countries from the global South.

Given both the speed and intensity of this reaction, however, there was also an expectation that the G20 would shift over time from crisis committee to an agenda dealing with a much broader set of issues. This is not to suggest that the financial regulatory work would be dropped, but rather that this component of activities was securely delegated to other international bodies, whether the International Monetary Fund, the Financial Stability Board or the Basel Committee for Banking Supervision. Such a transition was reinforced by a number of factors that merit attention. Confirmation of the G20's concert status could only come from dealing with a range of geopolitical issues. Moreover, the skill set of most leaders was more in synch with a wider not a deeper firmly technical agenda. And, more instrumentally, the demand for key leaders to do something (and to be seen as doing it) had built up on an array of global problems.

In more recent summits the G20 has signalled that the shift from crisis committee to steering committee could be met. The Seoul Summit in November 2010 took a major step in this direction with the inclusion of development. France as the host at Cannes in 2011 exaggerated this broadening-out tendency, extending the focus to a wide range of topics extending from anti-corruption initiative, food security and a push for financial transaction tax to name just a few.

Yet even by Cannes, this momentum toward a graduation from crisis committee to steering committee has been stalled if not completely stopped. On the one hand, the need to deal directly with financial issues through the G20 has been necessitated by a number of unanticipated factors. The protracted Eurocrisis was the main reason for why the G20 could not move on. But there were a number of other reasons as well, including the length of time it has taken to put an updated financial regulatory framework such as Basle III into place.

On the other hand, the G20 has not established a comfort level or credibility as the pivotal institution for issues beyond the financial arena. In good part this is due to a lack of continuity from one summit to the next. The Korean government did a commendable job in advancing the Seoul Development Consensus. However, French president Nicolas Sarkozy expanded the agenda in 2011 to the point where the credibility of the G20 was severely compromised. So many items were on the agenda that very little was accomplished. Mexico's Felipe Calderon did a commendable job of picking important issues (above all, green growth) for the 2012 Los Cabos Summit, but the comparative advantage of the G20 over the Rio+20 is still unproved.

If the G20 is not moving seamlessly from a crisis committee to a steering committee, and if the G20 is losing momentum in both of these functions, what is the underlining rationale for the forum? Those who point to the G20 as simply a talking shop — or a G0 — miss the point. As showcased by the Los Cabos Summit, the expectations for the G20 have to be lowered, but not to the point that the G20 is associated with the culture of the United Nations. The G20 at its core serves as the focus group not only for the individual countries at the table, but also for members of different constituent groups within the G20, and indeed for the global community.

When the G20 was put into place, the reference reached back to the past, with images of either a strong concert or at least an institution that meshes the old (G7/8) and new (BRICS) establishment. What the world needs to do is not look back but forward and fit the G20 into the context of the international system of old, with a huge amount of fragmentation among different segments of the G20 construct. The G20 remains the centre of global economic governance, if not global governance more generally, but it is a loose and ever-changing centre.

Paradoxically, however, there are advantages to this construct. A common criticism of G summitry in the past is that it is part of a disciplinary, coercive culture. This interpretation has to be reassessed from the experience at Los Cabos. Albeit there are still gaps in transparency, some of the deficiencies have positive attributes. There is no evidence of the G20 being a substitute for U.S. hegemonic control. The European Union in an exaggerated way needs to negotiate both internally and externally — at the same time as it takes criticism by its partners in the G20 for a lack of decisive action on the Eurocrisis. The BRICS grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa reveals that it should, and can, deliver as well take further benefits from the international system. And although difficult, there is ample space for free floaters beyond the G7/8 and BRICS (whether Mexico now, Korea in the past, or Australia and Turkey among others in the future) to make a contribution on a specific issue basis. All of these are positive advances that need to be more fully appreciated. While different from most original interpretations, this evolution is far from bad news. Not only is the interpretation of the G20 as the global focus group — and a group that focuses attention on core global concerns — a viable expectation about how the institution is operating specifically at Los Cabos, but it is more generally (even by awkward default) be a valuable model for global governance.

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