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March 31, 2011

Drezner v. Bradford on the Success / Failure of the G-20
Posted by David Shorr

Over at ForeignPolicy.com, two smart experts are going head-to-head on an issue central to my day job: the effectiveness and value of the G-20 as a multilateral forum. The Brookings Institution's Colin Bradford lays out "Seven New Laws of the G-20," the gist of which is to push back against the rush to judge G-20 failure. According to Colin, we need to relax and adjust to new realities that put more cooks in the global economic policy soup. I think his warnings against freak-out are well taken, as are his points about the opportunities of working with middle powers and exploiting the disruption of old coalitions and dividing lines.

Looking at Dan Drezner's reaction, I think he's too easily swept up in the G-20 obituaries -- but he also makes a fair point about the need for standards of success or failure in a multilateral forum. Inasmuch as multilateral diplomacy is a political process, it is subject to the same “expectations game” as any other form of politics. And this begs the question of reasonable expectations versus being set up for disappointment and perceived failure.

For the most part, I think the G-20 skeptics / cynics are applying unreasonable expectations. They usually point to the fiscal expansion v. contraction debate and the persistent controversy over currency valuations. It’s hard to think of a more stringent standard (but then, the G-20 has also drawn fire over its ritual calls for completion of the WTO Doha Round). Just like in olympic judging, you have to factor in the degree of difficulty.

In terms of a more patient and incremental template to judge progress in the G-20, I like the post-Seoul summit piece Colin wrote for Canada's Centre for Global Governance Innovation. The G-20's signature agenda is macroeconomic rebalancing to spread domestic consumption more evenly across the major economies, as a stable basis for global growth. Developed within the G-20, the “framework for strong, sustainable, and balanced growth” (SSBG) offers an alternative multilateral frame to the fraught currency dispute.

The dilemma for judging success or failure in such high-stakes high politics is that the issues are difficult by definition, yet there must be some progress to show for all the multilateral effort. The essence of the matter is that the process must help elicit policy moves that are difficult within the domestic context but are vital for the international common good. In reality, China will not commit itself to a sizable specific revaluation of the RMB, and nor will the G-20 agree to a set of triggers, mandates, or sanctions that compel rebalancing. Any such expectations in the media or elsewhere are useless. Yet it should be possible to apply a different sort of standard of effectiveness, say: that the normative frameworks, quantitative metrics, and ongoing dialogue in the G-20 generate pressure for exporting economies to boost consumption and consuming economies to reduce debt.

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I agree with your argument that the G-20 can increasingly serve as a powerful mechanism for managing conflicts and disputes in a new world order. I especially like your argument that visible disagreements can have positive side effects. There is far more accomplished at these summit meetings that the outcome document, as there is significant value in meeting face to face and discussing issues even if there isn’t agreement. Furthermore, diversity is a good thing. The fact that the G-20 is more representative than the G-8 is the exact reason why some expect the G-20 to eventually replace the G-8. For this reason, there may be merit in expanding the mandate of the G-20 to include non-financial matters, such as development and security issues to better reflect the new world order. Overall, in a changing world, the G-20 is an excellent tool for the US to interact with key regional powers in a multilateral setting.

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