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September 19, 2009

Getting Off on Technicalities -- The Pittsburgh G-20 Summit Agenda
Posted by David Shorr

Before I head to Pittsburgh next week for the G-20 summit, I have a few pre-summit thoughts. One of my favorite topics on this blog and elsewhere is to talk about international cooperation as a matter of ongoing diplomatic effort, particularly the diplomacy needed in order to build a peaceful, prosperous rules-based international community. In other words, synching up governments to deal with international problems is a job someone actually has to do. For different kinds of problems, this cooperation takes different forms and is carried out at varying levels of officialdom. And that is today's topic, because the way you look at the practicalities of cooperation shapes not only your view of summit meetings, but also the broader process by which nations can get into closer alignment and tackle global challenges.

I spent part of last week in Washington with my Canadian friends from the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). They've put out a new report (1.33 MB) previewing the Pittsburgh summit, and in our meetings they kept referring to the items on the financial reform agenda as "technical." When I listened to my colleagues' description, I thought to myself "maybe sort of, I guess, but not really." Those of us who are not steeped in credit markets and banking regulation would have a tough time following the ins and outs of the current economic policy agenda, it's true. In terms of how I think of technical in the policy making context, these are not technical matters at all.

For me, the distinction between technical and political issues is a crucial one, and worth highlighting (more below the fold).

What makes an issue technical is the absence of significant political sensitivity. It can be sorted out by professional specialists as a question of industry standards. This doesn't necessarily make it a simple question or one that can be resolved speedily, but it can be settled with minimal involvement of senior officials. Issues of greater political salience or sensitivity have to be decided higher and higher up the policy food chain. Many matters require the ultimate forms of political decision: treaty ratification or enactment of law by legislatures. In the case of bank regulation and capital requirements, legislation will definitely be necessary.

Okay, that's pretty basic stuff; it gets more interesting when we link it to future options for top-level diplomacy (G-8, G-20, variable geometry, etc.), which is very much up for grabs. My organization and I are calling for an expanded G-8 successor group -- we call it a 'G-X' -- and our reasons have everything to do with this question of decision-making levels. For us, the aim of summit reform is to make the very best use of the attention and authority of world leaders to help solve international problems. We want to ensure that the presidents and prime ministers focus on the kinds of steps that only they can take -- that the summit process wastes no time and effort on matters that are below their pay grade.

The idea is to ask these political leaders to do their utmost to be decisive and contribute toward solving problems like economic development, climate change, and nuclear proliferation. They should be held to high expectations of leadership and standards of accountability. Whether the G-X is comprised of 14, 16, or 20 countries, it should be have a fixed membership to provide a focus for the expectations and accountability.

Which brings me to my concern about the current vogue for variable geometry and the idea of having different groupings of nations to deal with problems depending on which are the influential stakeholders for each problem. In downplaying the need for a focal group of globally influential powers (a G-X), this idea takes some important insights about the networked nature of the 21st century world and extends them too far. In her pre-government career as a scholar and thought-leader, Policy Planning Director Anne-Marie Slaughter published many persuasive ideas about how personal, professional, and communications networks affect international power and influence and the emergence of international norms, particularly for good governance (the latter in her landmark 2004 book A New World Order).

Slaughter's book showed that in many areas (particularly accounting, finance, and the judiciary), professional collegial networks develop effective international standards by comparing experiences and solutions. She coined a new term to go with this idea -- transgovernmental consultations among fellow technical experts, in contrast with intergovernmental negotiations in which governmental positions are crafted at a political level.

I have no doubt that Slaughter understands that the toughest problems of the 21st century won't be solved by networks of technical experts. That said, however, the idea of variable geometry (of which Anne-Marie is a leading proponent) does place a lot of stock in a multi-shaped, multi-forum, dispersed rather than concentrated network of diplomacy and decision making. For my part, I want to hedge my bets with a loose concert of powers as a reservoir of political impetus. In an earlier post responding to Moises Naim, for example, I highlighted a practical question for multi-multilateralism: how much diplomacy, at how high a level, will traffic bear?


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I would only say the G-20, consisting of the leaders of 20 wealthy nations, meets behind closed doors to make unaccountable economic decisions affecting billions of people.

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