The G-20: Global “Governor” or Photo Opp.?


On July 7/8, 2017 Hamburg hosts the next G-20 Summit. Germany, and especially Angela Merkel, has put a lot of resources into its preparation (there is an election looming in September): under the heading „Shaping an Interconnected World“ Merkel will attempt to bring some issues of global significance forward, including stability of growth and the financial system, the fight against climate change, inclusive growth, migration, and a number more. As is usual in this format, the agenda of such a summit is the result of ongoing discussions during summits, enriched by national priorities. During the run up to this summit it has become clear that Angela Merkel is attempting to re-establish the G-20 (under German leadership) as the most significant global governance institution, in this sense re-awakening memories of 2008 when under British leadership the G-20 heads of state established themselves as the one global forum ready to combat the incipient economic and financial crisis. At that time there were hopes (also by this writer) that the sense of joint concern and cooperation would lead to better coordination of global economic and social governance.

As has variously been documented, this sense of communality – if it was real at that time – has disappeared during the last 9 years. Today, international media see the bilateral meetings of heads-of-state which will occur at the side of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg as the events with major significance: Putin-Trump, Putin-Xi, Trump-Xi, Modi-Xi, Merkel – …., Macron – ……, Erdogan – ….., etc. The actual joint summit meeting of the 20 heads of state, the EU, the international financial institutions, the OECD, they all will  be reduced to a sideshow.

The world certainly could use an effective, representative global governance architecture. The grip of the Bretton Woods Institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO) has started to slip, emerging countries created their own structures, the spirit of acting jointly to combat global problems is vaning, competition and vying for supremacy seems king. Not that a strong governance institution is desirable independent of the objectives it pursues. The „Western“ states should be aware that their global dominance, their economic model has severely been damaged as a role model, not least by the recent financial crisis. The strong emergence of China, India, Brazil and others must give way to their interests being iven equal weight.

In the runup to the Hamburg summit John Kirton, head of the G-20 Research Group at the University of Toronto has given a positive assessment of these G-20 Meetings. He records its history which began in 1999 as a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the 20 „most systemically important“ countries of the world and its elevation to the heads of state in 2008. In typical anglo-saxon fascination with measurement, he notes that up to now these heads of state have spent 22 days with each other and have published 140.426 (sic!) words of official conclusions. They have, I quote again, 1.962 exact formulated binding commitments, of which 72% have been implemented. Without me going into more quantitative detail, this report concludes that what the G-20 does, has had positive effects not only for the G-20 countries themselves, but for the wider world insofar as they promote both financial sector stability and the sharing of the fruits of globalisation by everybody. This is doubt ful, given the state of today‘s world.

Looking at the state of the world in July 2017 one could think that this evaluation refers to another world: globally, the brief spirit of cooperation has disappeared, the USA is intent to abandon its role as the „guarantor and promoter“ of post-World War II – global governance and sees its position as one to be improved at the expense of its trading „partners“; Russia is reasserting its own hegemonial role in its neighborhood and the Middle East; China sees prospects of promoting its own trade and economic and political influence in its neighborhood (South China Sea) and via its ambitious Silk road project and trading relations with resource-rich countries; Europe is struggling to maintain a semblance of unity (albeit without a global strategy) in the face of Brexit; re-establishment of national sovereignty has taken hold of many countries; in the rich countries the disaffection of the populace with their political masters has given rise to right-wing populism, as a result of massively rising inequality and fear of insecurity; financial systems have been „saved“ at high costs to taxpayers, only to keep pursuing their instability and inequality-generating activities; the fear about labor-replacing new technologies abounds; migration flows in Asia, Africa, Latin America have increased due to immiserization of large swaths of these continents‘ populations; belligerent activities threaten both civilian populations and the stability of whole regions; climate change and the massive exploitation of environmental capital threaten the world population‘s way of life – and so on. Of course, this state of affairs is not the fault of the G-20 alone, but it is more than blue-eyed to paint the Decade of G-20 Governance as a success story and to continue in this vein.

Let us see this Hamburg Summit as what it can be: a venue of 20 plus important world leaders affording the opportunity to have a number of one-and-one meetings, with the hope that some of the most glaring present faultlines of today‘s world can be ironed out. The joint summit itself will not change one iota of the precarious world situation. Maybe EU countries and China can put pressure on the US to reverse their abandoning the Paris climate accord; maybe some accord can be found to pacify the Mid-East and stem migration flows; maybe a start can be made to improve the economic situation in Africa, with a view to stem migration flows. Merkel seems to be trying, if with the wrong policy prescriptions.

But I would bet a lot on the assessment that the roots of today‘s economic and climate problems, the dominance of a self-serving financial system, the „Western“ way-of-life of exploint nature and natural resources and labor, the multinational-firm-driven mode of globalization at the expense of thes well-being of countries and people – all these will not be addressed, let alone „solved“. In this way I judge that the simultaneous presence of 20 plus world leaders in Hamburg is a missed opportunity to improve the world. It is, as its detractors say, more a photo opportunity and a posturing occasion for heads-of-state than a serious meeting towards a better global governance. Even if Angela Merkel has good intentions, the path to …..-First posturing and the renewed fight for hegemony will not let her.

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Filed under Crisis Response, Global Governance, Socio-Economic Development

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