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Rising Powers and the G-20
Are the World’s Emerging Powers Rising to the Challenge?
The challenges of global economic growth are not the only problems that cry out for the kind of cooperation the G-20 embodies

One way to look at the G-20 is as a laboratory for the evolution of international politics in a fast-changing world. The group’s first summit meeting in November 2008, convened by then-President George W. Bush at the height of the financial crisis, symbolized the world’s new power configuration and the need to have emerging powers at the table. Indeed, as more than one writer in these pages points out, traditional Western powers like the United States lost a great deal of credibility owing to their role as the source of the crisis. Now with world leaders gathering in Cannes four years later, it’s a good time to ask how well rising and established powers have done in fashioning solutions to urgent global problems.

The G-20’s massive package of budgetary stimulus in 2008-09 was a dramatic entrance for a new diplomatic forum. It also may have fostered unrealistic expectations. After you help keep the world from sinking into another Great Depression, what do you do for an encore? Indeed, G-20 leaders have been shifting from crisis response mode to longer-term systemic issues. With the group’s core traditional responsibility for global economic growth and financial stability its top agenda item is the imbalance of major economies that are either too dependent on exports or, conversely, spending by their own consumers. The mutual assessment process being led by experts at the International Monetary Fund is aimed at identifying the sources of those imbalances, and the policy steps governments can take to redress them. Regulation of financial markets, to avoid a repeat of the recent meltdown, is the other priority.

A Wider Agenda
If the G-20’s defining characteristic is the way it brings emerging and established powers to the table as peers, the challenges of global economic growth are not the only problems that cry out for this kind of cooperation. Indeed, the phenomenon of rising powers has typically been understood as multidimensional—with the BRICS countries having greater influence not just in economic terms but also political, social, cultural, etc. Many are asking if the G-20 should now broaden its horizons to cover a wider range of issues.

To a substantial extent, the G-20 has already added agenda items beyond the global economy and financial system. The most significant new area has been development in less developed countries. The G-20 is a group of the world’s largest economies, convened because of their impact on the overall economic picture. And while aggregate global growth, in today’s interconnected world, makes a difference for conditions throughout the world, it does not narrow the gap with the poorest nations and raise their living standards.

With that in mind, the G-20 formed a development working group and endorsed the Seoul Consensus on removing obstacles to economic growth in less developed countries. Indeed, steadily rising gross domestic product is essential for development, as demonstrated by the impressive growth-based progress of China and South Korea. One major focus of the working group has been to highlight best practices to build infrastructure that enables growth.

University of Johannesburg Professor Chris Landsberg’s contribution to this issue of Courier voices concern over lack of G-20 support for development, despite South Africa’s co-chairmanship of the working group. For one of his concerns, financing for development, the G-20 will receive the results of a study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The other working group formed to deal with a new issue area for the G-20 focuses on anticorruption efforts, and it represents an interesting success story of how the summit process can spur significant progress. With an action plan of encouraging ratification of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), adoption of anti-foreign bribery legislation, clampdown on ill-gotten assets, and stronger national anticorruption agencies, the working group shows how a G-20 initiative can generate significant activity and progress with a modest investment of high-level time and attention. It also undercuts the idea—quite prominent in debate over the G-20—that every issue outside the forum’s core economic mandate constitutes a major distraction.

In his article on the Brazilian perspective, Paulo Sotero of the Woodrow Wilson Center notes another worry regarding the G-20: potential overlap or competition with the old-line multilateralism of the United Nations. For Brazil this represented a significant concern, given its aspiration to a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Now after several years of experience with the G-20, there may be a growing realization that the informal multilateral cooperation of a loosely structured summit process is not only compatible with traditional intergovernmental organizations but actually depends on them.

Finally, Yuli Ismartono, deputy chief editor of the English edition of the Indonesian magazine Tempo, looks at how serving as the G-20’s only Southeast Asia representative has prompted her country to engage more broadly in the world. Viewing itself as a bridge between the big economies of the G-20 and smaller developing countries, Indonesia’s focus is on balanced growth and fighting corruption—two issues its own success hinges on.

Another refrain in this issue of Courier is the domestic politics confronting G-20 leaders back home, the leaders being politicians after all. The domestic political considerations that underlie diplomatic issues are a familiar dynamic. Equally important is leaders’ appetites for the effort that goes into crafting diplomatic solutions to urgent international problems—though failure to deal with these challenges carries its own consequences, including domestically.

Resource
G-20 Plans and Preparations
The G-20 Plans are compiled by the G-20 Research Group drawing on public sources and are offered as an aid to researchers and other stakeholders interested in the issues on the G-20 agenda. (updated September 15, 2011)


— David Shorr, Program Officer, The Stanley Foundation
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