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June 22, 2010

Summits! Summits!! SUMMITS!!!
Posted by David Shorr

On Thursday I head to Toronto to cover this week's G-8/20 world leader jamboree. But before I do, conventional wisdom seems to demand that I justify why even bother. Is it just me, or is anyone else struck by the pervasive cynicism that surrounds political processes of all kinds? (I suppose I'm getting jaded about jadedness.) Within the foreign policy blogging community, we can look to Dan Drezner for a world(summit)-weary scene-setter. The conceit -- which Dan traces back to an Onion-style satirical Alan Beattie column -- is that everything said at summits is self-serving and meaningless. Multilateral gatherings are about expressing concern and good intentions, and not actually doing anything to address the given source of concern.

Look, it's one thing to scrutinize these meetings to see what policy deliverables they produce, but it's another to view them as inherently suspect. With the G-20, the skeptics have additional problem: the first three G-20 summits arguably helped avert a great depression by replenishing the IMF and spurring a multi-national round of fiscal stimulus. To be sure, the G groupings could raise their game in terms of pushing issues along and tackling the world's problems. But it's hard to argue that the world would be better without them.

So what is the fair way to judge diplomatic processes like these? First of all, I think the key is to recognize that, as we demand action from world leaders, action takes different forms. The problems on the global agenda are being addressed through a variety of channels, and leaders can propel these forward in different ways. Here's a partial catalogue of political will "outputs" that come from top-level policy makers in the Gs:

  • Resource mobilization. Examples are the infusion of capital into the IMF, funds to dismantle and secure Russian WMD, and the new matermal and child health initiative being launched at the upcoming summit.
  • Sponsorship of focused and ongoing inter-governmental cooperation at a technical or operational level, such as the Global Initiative to Counter Nuclear Terrorism or the Counter-Terrorism Action Group.
  • Affirmation of broad commitments or priorities. The fiscal stimulus and trade protection stanstill commitments fall in this category. In fact, Arvind Subramanian argues that the G-20 -- notwithstanding that its macroeconomic rebalancing agenda is patently hortatory -- deserves credit for spurring China to announce its currency revaluation plans (hat tip to Greg Scoblete).
  • Mandating that problems be worked out elsewhere, for instance IFI governance reform.
  • Serving as a consensus incubator. Since the Gs are an informal form of multilateralism -- in contrast with traditional treaty-based bodies -- they are not proper negotiating forums. That said, they could serve an invaluable role in setting some basic terms or frameworks, say, for climate change financing, elimination of fuel subsidies, or a fissile material cut-off treaty.

So why don't we home in on how leaders are dealing with the items on their agenda -- urge them toward their stated purpose instead of smugly declaring them phonies?


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Well said.Don't you think that the G-20 meetings are a farce, nothing is accomplished.One of my friends was saying that it is just another ploy for governments to spend taxpayers money to send their leaders on holiday.

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me and my friends thought about the same thing too, i agreed.

That said, they could serve an invaluable role in setting some basic terms or frameworks, say, for climate change financing, elimination of fuel subsidies, or a fissile material cut-off treaty.
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