The Group of Twenty’s (G20) future in an increasingly globalized and rapidly changing world is a subject of great debate. The debate has intensified with the recent arrival of new geopolitical tensions and the populist, protectionist pressures produced by U.S. president Donald Trump and Brexit-bound British prime minister Theresa May, and with the compounding challenges presented by climate change. Views range widely, from the many who see the G20 summit destined to decline or disappear following the great global financial crisis of 2008 that catalyzed its birth, to the few who expect it to rise and expand. The evidence supports the latter case of a G20 on the rise.
G20 Performance 2008-2017
Since 2008, G20 summit performance has steadily risen across all key dimensions by which international institutions’ performance can be judged. On the first dimension, domestic political management, the leaders’ attendance has never been less than 90%. In its public deliberation, the G20’s communiqués steadily expanded from 3,567 words in 2008 to 34,746 in 2017. In its principled and normative direction setting, G20 affirmations of financial stability overtook those of globalization for all in 2013, while those of democracy were strong and those of individual liberty/human rights rose in the last two years. In its decision making, the G20’s precise, future-oriented, politically-binding commitments expanded from 95 in 2008 to 533 in 2017. In the delivery of these decisions, through members’ compliance with their priority commitments before the next summit, average compliance was always at least 59% and reached a new high of 80% in 2017. In the institutionalized development of global governance inside the G20, the number of its ministerial forums expanded since 2010 from the sole finance ministers and central bank governors to include six by 2017.
Causes of Performance
This rising performance is best explained by shared shocks and vulnerabilities that have spurred G20 members to collectively respond to global threats, from the Cold War one of nuclear proliferation to the new age one of automation and the cross-cutting one of human-caused climate change, with its innate ability to deepen poverty and delay development. The continuing failure of the core multilateral organizations from the 1940s to cope with these shocks and vulnerabilities means there is no other place for leaders to address these issues other than the G20, if only because those older organizations seldom meet at the leaders’ level in the informal and spontaneous way needed to comprehensively, coherently and synergistically address the key challenges of an interconnected world. G20 members’ collective predominance and internal equality of capability has also helped them to fill the gap left by the Bretton Woods institutions, as has their convergence on the common liberal principles of open economies, societies and polities, despite occasional retreats in the superpowers of old.
Despite the challenges, complexities, and uncertainties of an increasingly interconnected world, at the G20’s Hamburg Summit in June 2017, Donald Trump’s G20 partners, led by host German chancellor Angela Merkel, found a way to work with Trump to advance cooperation on the key issues of terrorism, North Korea, women’s economic empowerment and the marine environment. They also found a way for the 19 to collectively act to control climate change, until the executive branch of the U.S. government would rejoin the campaign. The G20 thus followed its G7 members that had just met in Taormina, Italy, for their own summit on May 26-27, 2017, in standing united for the climate despite the U.S. president’s refusal to do so himself. It extended the historic precedent set at Taormina in which one powerful country failed to derail consensus among the rest. The Hamburg Summit’s overall, highly liberal, message was that the economy should serve society, not the other way around, signaling that the G20 will have a faster, fuller, liberal future.
These prospects are enhanced by Argentina’s plan to host a 2018 G20 summit centred on producing liberal prosperity for all, and one whose themes, while reflecting regional priorities, emphasize the key issues that globalization has brought. Indeed, in a speech by Argentinean president Mauricio Macri upon assuming the chair of the presidency on December 1, 2017, it was recognized that the challenges brought by globalization have been many and that its benefits have not been equally shared by all. He stated that “the world has changed in a fundamental way,” that “this is the moment to build new bridges across the globe” and that Argentina, through the G20, was committed to “international cooperation, multilateralism and global governance.”
John Kirton is founder and Director of the G20 Research Group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. He is the author of G20 Governance for a Globalized World (2013) and China’s G20 Leadership (2016), and co-author of The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (2015). A professor of political science, John teaches global governance, international relations and Canadian foreign policy.
Brittaney Warren is Director of Compliance and Lead Researcher for Climate Change and Environment for the G20 Research Group based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has published on the effective use of accountability measures in summit commitments, on the G7 and G20’s compliance and governance of climate change, and on the G20’s governance of digitalization. Brittaney has lived and worked in Spain and Peru, where she worked on a project dedicated to women’s economic empowerment.