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September 23, 2009

G-20, G-8, G-X -- Options for Future Summit Diplomacy
Posted by David Shorr

As a high-level diplomatic forum, the G-20 is a creature of financial crisis -- two times over, actually. It started bringing together finance ministers in the late-1990s during the Asian financial crisis, and the 2008 meltdown on Wall Street spurred President Bush to convene his fellow heads of state for the first time last November. The agenda of the G-20's third summit-level conclave this week in Pittsburgh is a direct descendant and focuses on financial reform and digging out of the global recession (this Treasury Department report tracks the status of earlier commitments).

In a longer-term perspective, though, there is a wider question of how established powers and emerging powers will work together at the highest political levels. The G-7 was the club of post-War industrial powers (essentially the key countries of the West). What will be the wider 21st century successor of group to provide leadership on urgent international problems? This is the lingering question about the future of summit diplomacy beyond the current economic crisis. For instance, we don't know whether the G-20 will continue convening summit meetings, or whether it will go back to its previous pattern of meetings of finance ministers. South Korea has expressed a keen interest in hosting a G-20 summit next April, but it isn't clear whether other G-20 governments want to keep holding summits. The G-8 has for several years been meeting with the leaders of Brazil, India, China, South Africa, and Mexico (a sort of G-8 + 5), but that has been a rickety two-tiered stratagem rather than a sustainable structure.

So how might G-grouping summitry unfold? I see three main options -- each with roots in the status quo, rather than being drawn up on a clean slate. One would be to cement the G-20 as a summit-level forum. Another would be to solidify the G-8 consultations into a G-13 or G-14; the 14th seat is usually seen as an Arab or Muslim nation (particularly Saudi Arabia or Egypt). The third alternative would be a G-15 or 16 to add regional or middle-powers seen as vitally important. There are experts who foresee a combination of the G-8, G-14, and G-20 all coexisting, but the important thing is to sort this out, so we can stop talking about who's in and who's out and put the focus more squarely on issues like the global economy, climate change, and nonproliferation.


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