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G-x: Where Global Problems Should Get Solved
January 2011

Editor’s Note: A new series of feature articles in think. will examine the main themes of the three issue areas on which the Stanley Foundation focuses its programming—global leadership, nuclear material security, and genocide prevention. Each article will lay out the concerns, international trends and dynamics, and underlying reasoning on which our approach and advocacy are based. We will also strive to inspire you to learn more, take action, and work with us as we push for better US and global policies that lead to a secure peace.

In our current era of rapid and sweeping change, one key challenge is to ensure that the nations of the world conduct their relations with a view toward sustaining widespread peace and prosperity, rather than the alternative. The international political order matters and is in significant flux. As the global balance of power shifts, it isn’t clear what rules the key powers will heed, in what settings they’ll conduct their diplomatic business, and whether they’ll take a more cooperative or competitive stance toward one another.

We can’t take the post-World War II order for granted, as we have done for the past half century. It’s not that 20th-century institutions of global governance, like the United Nations, have been nullified. Obviously they remain in place. That said, those institutions do not command the kind of allegiance that would spur pivotal powers like the United States, China, European Union, and others to form a true united front against climate change, economic instability, or nuclear proliferation. Multilateral diplomacy has long been anarchic and collective action difficult, but it is now a “herding cats” exercise more than ever before.

The tragic history of power transitions—and the violent clashes that typically arise when the international system is subject to reordering—is often remarked upon. The implicit strategic aim is a negative one: to avoid full-out conflict between established and emerging powers.

Yet that is a pretty modest objective, setting the bar at quite a low level. Such a strategy is premised on a minimal or skeptical view toward any supposed shared interests among pivotal powers. It envisions the world’s powers managing their differences rather than bridging them. If pivotal powers aspire merely to peacefully coexist, they will presumably stay entrenched in their policy differences—seeing little or no value in compromise, looking skeptically at the ideas of positive-sum bargains or common interests.

But the current global governance agenda is based on the opposite premise. For instance, both the climate change Conferences of Parties (COP) and the G-20 framework for strong, sustainable, and balanced growth ask key powers to make difficult compromises and policy steps for the sake of the environmental and economic systems as a whole. And it’s possible to see the glass as half full; not all signs point toward the minimalist path. While the December 2009 Copenhagen climate change meeting, for example, failed to negotiate a Kyoto successor agreement (a goal that may not have been realistic), it did prompt major new commitments and frameworks, which were followed up at the Cancun COP. Perhaps that experience—along with macroeconomic rebalancing, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, and Iran sanctions—offers a basis for optimism.

The Stanley Foundation has undertaken a major initiative to encourage emerging and established powers to work together to solve the urgent problems on the current international agenda. The world is in a period of great demand for global leadership and multilateral cooperation. Issues that the international community is wrestling with—such as climate change, nonproliferation, or genocide prevention—will determine whether the 21st-century world is shaped by disintegration and disorder or by the social contract of a rules-based international order.

Given the significant shifts in global power and an increasingly multipolar world, the world needs diplomatic venues flexible enough for top leaders to use them as political outlets and at the same time keep from being mired in excessive formality and hidebound process. As we examined the current obstacles, points of leverage, and optimal approaches for effective global governance, the foundation decided to focus on the G groupings as the most favorable multilateral setting to heighten expectations of enlightened global leadership.

The "G process" of annual heads-of-state summits has shown an ability to evolve and grow (in membership and agenda) over the last 30 years, first in its move from a G-6 to G-8 and more recently in the form of a G-20. This process (which we shorthand as G-x) is far from perfect, but with its unique stature as a global leadership forum the foundation believes the G-x could contribute a great deal to solving urgent global problems. In that spirit, we have called on the governments involved to make sure their consultations meet the highest possible standards for: accountability to commitments, amount of time leaders spend together, ambitiousness of their agenda, consistent collaboration with more formal bodies like the United Nations, and more.

Diplomats often remark that “the devil is in the details,” but any negotiation that has reached the point of wrestling with details has already progressed pretty far. Unfortunately, too many major items on the international agenda have been deadlocked for years over major political differences on basic frameworks and guidelines, rather than arcane details. That’s why the G-x is so important, because with its series of summit meetings it revolves around political leaders at the very top levels.

The G-x also puts a spotlight on relations between emerging and established leaders. The Stanley Foundation initiated its advocacy for expanding the G-8 to include emerging powers before the G-20 was solidified as a permanent series of summits, which was announced at the Pittsburgh summit in September 2009. Yet the victory was partial. The Pittsburgh decision designated the G-20 as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation,” drawing too restrictive a line around the forum’s substantive agenda. This left relations between emerging and established powers in a schizophrenic state; they had a forum to work together on one set of issues, yet the old exclusive club of the G-8 still dealt with a much broader agenda.

Of course, the agenda is the heart of the matter. Whether we’re talking about the overall mandate for a multilateral forum or the choice of items to be discussed at a particular meeting, the agenda is the framework that focuses diplomatic attention and, hopefully, spurs collective action on real-world problems. In effect, the G-x is the steward of a precious political commodity—the time and attention of world leaders.

As the public watches this process, there are some central questions to consider: has all the time and effort been put to good use, toward action and moving issues forward? Are the statements and communiqués full of vague boilerplate language or do they develop new norms and frameworks and commit to next steps? A lot depends on the answers. Look for our thoughts on these questions and more in upcoming editions of think. where we’ll continue to examine the role of the G-x in effective global governance.

David Shorr

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