Simon Maxwell

Shaping the mission statement and the work programme of the G20

The G20 leaders’ meeting in Seoul in November will be well-organised and well-attended. Following earlier meetings in Washington, London, Pittsburgh and Toronto, it will demonstrate the growing importance of the emerging powers, especially in Asia. It will provide an opportunity to discuss how to sustain recovery from the global financial crisis, especially through the Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth. It will deliver some valuable outputs, especially on bank regulation, a global financial safety net, and a development agenda linked to growth. And it may – but may not – achieve what some of its proponents hope, position the G20 as the premier forum for leaders’ meetings and as a steering committee for the world.

Whether the ambitions of G20 advocates can – indeed should - be achieved will depend on three main factors, and on the choices the G20 leaders themselves decide to make. Their choices will shape the mission statement and work programme of the G20.

First, the G20 must decide whether its primary concern is with crisis management or long-term issues. Its recent history has been dominated by the need for a global response to the financial crisis – and the severity of that crisis provided a justification for upgrading the meetings from Finance Minister to leader level. Although the recovery is fragile and many risks remain, my own view is that the financial issues on the agenda are not of a nature to engage leaders. It is hard to imagine David Cameron, for example, travelling across the world for a discussion with other Government leaders about IMFInternational Monetary Fund quotas or even the fine print of the Basel III agreement on bank regulation. This is the traditional fodder of Finance Ministers and should remain so. There are some other issues which might be considered immediate or slow onset crises (food, energy, climate, even development in some contexts), but if the focus is on crisis management, should leaders meet unless there is a real need for immediate action? Probably not. In their own countries, leaders do not activate their emergency war rooms and civil contingencies committees (like COBRA in the UK) unless there is an emergency or a war. The alternative view, then, is that leaders should take a longer view. From this perspective, food, energy, climate and development are legitimate concerns, and justify a get-together. The G20, on this reading, is concerned with global issues, with helping to manage the global commons on which we all, increasingly, depend.

The question of which global issues should feature on the agenda depends on the answer to a second question, which is whether the G20 will limit itself to economic issues or take a wider view. Its history is economic: the G20 was originally established, under the leadership of Paul Martin of Canada, as a forum of Finance Ministers. The urgency of tackling the global financial crisis has kept it tethered in that arena. Should it now spread its wings? An obvious extension is to the economic aspects of global issues like climate change. Some would like the G20 to take further steps – for example, into nuclear proliferation and other security issues. Does it then displace the G8? Some would like it to, though the two will run side by side, at least until the French Presidency in 2011. My view is that leaders will inevitably have a broad agenda. It is hard to imagine sitting down with Barack Obama, for example, and not wanting to talk to him about Israel-Palestine or Afghanistan – or climate change.

But this raises a third question, about the relationship of the G20 to other bodies. It is one thing to replace the G8, quite another to replace the UN Security Council. This is the risk inherent in talking about the G20 as a ‘global steering committee’, or as the world’s ‘premier forum’, rather than a (or even the) forum for those particular countries. It may well be the case that the G20 contains two thirds of the world’s population and accounts for 90% of global GNP, but that is no reason to disregard the voice of the G-172 who are not included, nor to usurp the legitimacy of existing institutions. This problem is not solved by inviting non-members to the meetings, even representatives of bodies like the African Union, even Ban Ki-Moon himself, as Secretary General of the UN. There is a risk that other countries will interpret the communiqués of the G20 as invitations to rubber-stamp decisions they have had no part in making. Further, existing institutions, like the WTO on trade or the UNFCCC on climate, will be undermined if the G20 succumbs to hubris. The lesson seems clear. The G20 can provide a forum for consultation and coordination, a platform for consensus-building, and a mechanism for mutual accountability, but it should see its role as supporting not supplanting the institutions of global governance.

A G20 which deals with global issues, both long and short term, economic and non-economic. A  G20 which works responsibly and respectfully with other institutions. And a G20 which recognises that it is a forum for consultation as much as a vehicle for taking decisions and launching initiatives. This is a worthy field on which leaders can engage. The vision is one which implies a mission statement for the G20 and a practical work programme.

An ambitious but appropriately modest mission statement could be:

‘Our vision is of a secure, fair and sustainable world, which supports the well-being of all the world’s people and the planet which we share. We work together for this better world, by sharing our ideas, collaborating on the development of specific proposals, and holding each other to account. Our role is to support effective, accountable and representative global institutions.’

In terms of a practical work programme, the G20 already has much on its plate, especially linked to what might be thought of as the Finance Ministers’ legacy agenda of financial regulation and global economic governance. The Korean Presidency has added development, with a particular focus on growth, as a topic which plays to current concerns. The pillars include infrastructure, private sector development, trade and finance. The future work programme should not become overloaded, and leaders will need to avoid ‘agenda creep’, in which each Presidency adds new subjects. The French, for example, have said that Africa and commodity price volatility will be priorities in 2011. They have not said what they would like to drop. At the same time, and notwithstanding the risk of agenda creep, it will be hard to see the leaders’ meeting not wanting to discuss energy and food security, as two topics currently generating headlines.

They will also find it difficult not to deal with climate change, especially since the Seoul meeting will take place only a few weeks before the sixteenth Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Cancun. Indeed, climate change is exactly the kind of crunchy, global issue, requiring strong global political leadership, that G20 leaders should want on the agenda. They need to be careful, however, not to set unrealistic expectations of Cancun, and not to undermine the negotiations. As the mission statement, suggests, they should support the UNFCCC, not supplant it.

Cancun will not deliver the global deal that failed to materialise in Copenhagen, and nothing the G20 can do between now and the end of November will change that fact. Instead, the G20 can help Cancun settle some important institutional and architectural issues, especially about how to manage additional finance for adaptation, mitigation and reduced deforestation; and it can help make sure that the carbon reduction pledges made through the Copenhagen Accord, itself a product of Copenhagen, but not a treaty-based agreement, are carried over into the UNFCC proper. Beyond that, the G20 should have its eye on the South Africa COP at the end of 2011, and use its structures to help prepare the ground for a long overdue breakthrough on a new post-2012 regime to replace the commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. No great announcement is needed is Seoul, no grandiloquent promises. Instead, G20 leaders should report that they have discussed the issue, and should promise to talk more. A Working Group, like that created for development, would be a good way to manage this, but leaders themselves must commit the time needed to build trust and find a common approach. To quote the mission statement, they should share ideas, collaborate on the development of specific proposals, and hold each other to account.

In following this course, they do not set themselves up as a steering committee, but instead manage something much more valuable.


These notes follow my participation in an excellent international symposium, held in Korea on 28-29 September 2010, supported by the Presidential Committee for the G20 Summit, and organised by the Korea Development Institute, theBrookings Institution, and the Dong-A Ilbo (a leading Korean newspaper). Of course, these are my personal views.  The symposium volume is now available here.

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