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February 13, 2013

How Can the G-20 Regain its Mojo?
Posted by David Shorr

Recently I've traded posts back and forth with fellow G-20 watchers at the G20 Studies Centre of Australia's Lowy Institute. In a further bit of synchronicity, the Centre released a fuller analysis within days of an equivalent piece from me and a colleague. Looked at side-by-side, the two papers offer a lot of shared diagnosis of what ails the G-20, but also clarifies the lingering dispute over the scope of the group's agenda.

Both of these pieces give prescriptions to boost G-20 effectiveness in its next phase. The first four years of G-20 summits since the 2008 financial meltdown give us a good base of experience with its strengths and weaknesses as a multilateral body -- plenty of lessons to be gleaned and applied.

As the Lowy Institute's Mike Callaghan (a former Australian deputy finance minister) sees it, the process is due for a reset. His paper thus calls for Relaunching the G20 on the basis of nine essential precepts of summit-craft. My own paper on The G-20 as a Lever for Progress was written jointly with Barry Carin of the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). And while many of Barry and my ideas for a stronger G-20 are similar to Mike's, we didn't couch them as a major overhaul. That's because we see the G-20 as having gotten something of a bad rap, surrounded by cynics who make no effort to understand how the G-20 works or what it's trying to do. For all the debate over the G-20's proper focus and critique of its effectiveness, there's been scant attention to the practicalities of this comparatively new forum. 

In fact, the G-20 is dealing with an assortment of problems using various ways and means. One section of the Carin-Shorr paper takes inventory of the G-20 toolbox -- from collective declarations to national policy commitments, agenda-setting, resource-mobilization, or new multilateral mechanisms such as the Financial Stability Board and IMF Mutual Assessment Process. If you want to get the most out of this process, start with a full picture of its efforts thus far. And working from that sort of overview, Barry and I derived a cardinal rule of thumb for everything the G-20 does:

For any issue on its agenda, G-20 involvement is justified only when its attention to that issue translates into progress that could not otherwise be attained. Every proposed topic must be justified by such a theory of change, and every related report, statement, and communique must show what is being accomplished.

The G-20 can, and should, tackle a variety of international challenges, but always aimed at advancing the dialogue and moving toward solutions. As I highlighted in the last go-round with my Lowy Institute colleagues, this is a debate over which issues should be on the G-20 leaders' plates. (At some level it's also a culture clash between economic and foreign policy specialists, but that's another topic.) Mike Callaghan is arguing for erecting a wall around the G-20 agenda that keeps the leaders from dealing with anything but the main business of economic growth, financial stability, and governance reform for the Bretton Woods Institutions. 

Boiling it down, the Carin-Shorr argument is that there's a right way and a wrong way to be an agenda hawk. The G-20 can be clear about priorities, disciplined in its deliberations, and vigilant about wasted effort -- all without slamming the door on a few ancillary topics that offer the chance to make a positive difference. Some of our ideas are also echoed in a report from a study group of US and Chinese experts convened by the Stanley Foundation, Center for American Progress, and China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

As I mentioned, both sides of this debate agree on many things. All of us are concerned about G-20 reports and communique text that highlight issues without advancing them. We all agree on the importance of keeping world leaders focused on G-20 priorities that really need their attention, and Mike offers some great ideas for how the leaders' precious hours together at summits can be best spent and structured.

But here again, key questions in this debate are only loosely connected to practical realities. The plain fact is that the leaders do not engage or even familiarize themselves with all the issues on the G-20 agenda. That's not to deny that senior aides and lower-level officials certainly spin their wheels for some of the matters on the docket. Yet that's an argument for culling the agenda and enforcing greater discipline rather than a draconian purge. 


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