from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The G20: Prospects and Challenges for Global Governance

February 13, 2013

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Yesterday I got to debate the role of the Group of Twenty (G20) in global governance with some heavyweight thinkers at CFR’s New York offices. The on-the-record discussion, moderated by Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, included Ian Bremmer, the head of the Eurasia Group and author of the bestselling Every Nation for Itself, and Nicolas Berggruen, author of the new book Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way between East and West. The wide-ranging conversation explored whether the G20 was up to the task of serving as the premier steering group for the world economy—much less addressing other items on the global agenda.

The panel acknowledged that the G20 had encountered strong headwinds after its early successes, as the immediate crisis atmosphere had dissipated and diverging national interests had buffeted the body. Berggruen, president of the Berlin-based Berggruen Institute on Governance, noted that the G20 “started off with a bang” but that it faces questions concerning “how relevant it can be going forward.” On this issue, Bremmer was the most pessimistic , arguing that the G20’s impotence reflected the emergence of a “G-zero world,” in which nobody is in charge and major players will pursue uncoordinated preferences. My own take on the body’s potential was more sanguine. The G20 remains indispensable as the only forum in which the major established and emerging economies meet exclusively at the highest level. While it cannot solve all our problems, it should remain the apex framework for breaking global deadlocks. Indeed, I proposed that the G20 should add a parallel, foreign ministers track, to complement a process that has to date been dominated by finance ministers and central bank governors.

Although the G20 had shown considerable utility, particularly during the crisis, Slaughter cautioned that its future efficacy would depend in part on its perceived legitimacy among other UN member states (what others have called the “G-173”). Berggruen agreed that it would be a shame for the world to “waste its opportunity” to have the G20 emerge “as a place of decision and a place of action.”

To avoid this outcome, Berggruen proposed a variety of structural changes at the G20. First, the formation of a permanent secretariat to foster “institutional memory.” Second, “having subgroups of G20 ministers… working on specific issues… beyond just one presidential cycle.” Third, for the G20 to adopt a system of qualified majority voting or permit members to “opt out” of particular agreements, so that the body could resolve complex problems without holding itself hostage to the lowest common denominator. This last proposal elicited skepticism from Bremmer, who suggested that G20 members would resist any infringement on consensus decision-making.

If Berggruen’s third proposal was problematic, his second made a lot of sense to me. Within the G20, we are likely to see increased delegation of tasks to specific ministerial portfolios beyond the treasury. Much of the G20’s everyday work will occur within transnational networks of ministers (of labor, the environment, foreign affairs, etc.), and be elevated to the summit level only when a major political decision is needed. On the other hand, I was a lot more skeptical of Berggruen’s proposal for a G20 secretariat, given the fear of member states that such a body could take on a life of its own, creating what social scientists call “principal-agent” problems by advancing its own institutional agenda.

The lively panel ended by taking audience questions, which ranged from issues of quota reform International Monetary Fund to the potential for the G20 to replace the UN Security Council, from U.S.-China relations to the priorities Russia has signaled as this year’s G20 host. You can watch an entire video of the event here.