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The Group of Twenty (G20), which meets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for its annual summit on November 30 and December 1, is celebrating an auspicious birthday. It is turning ten. This milestone is an appropriate moment to reflect on what the group has and has not accomplished—as well as what role it can hope to play in an age of rising nationalism and expanding geopolitical competition.
The G20 Record
It was in November 2008, during the depths of the Great Recession, that President George W. Bush convened an emergency summit of the world’s main economic powers. The elevation of the G20 to the leaders’ level was a watershed in global governance. For the first time, the most important established and emerging nations met as ostensibly equal partners at the apex of multilateral summitry. The event reflected a new reality. Western governments could no longer hope to resolve international economic crises themselves. They needed a more encompassing body that included rising nations.
The G20 is now an annual fixture—and little wonder. Its members represent two thirds of the world’s population, generate 85 percent of global GDP, and account for 75 percent of international trade. Because it is more flexible and less encompassing than formal, treaty-based institutions, the G20 has the potential to act more nimbly and (at least in principle) transcend stultifying bloc politics that afflict the United Nations and other universal membership organizations.
So how has the G20 performed? Its glory days were surely 2009–2010, when it operated as a global crisis committee. It generated sufficient liquidity to ease the credit crunch, reinvigorated the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, created a new Financial Stability Board, and supported new capital requirements for major banks. It was less impressive thereafter, as a would-be steering committee for the global economy. It failed to arrest trade protectionism, to foster macroeconomic coordination, or to spearhead a post-carbon economy. Its very heterogeneity often impeded agreement, particularly as authoritarian China and Russia began to flex their muscles in strategic competition with the West.
What most threatens the G20 today is less geopolitics, however, than populist nationalism. The world’s recovery from the financial crisis has been uneven, squeezing middle classes within the developed world in particular. At annual summits, leaders of the G20 have repeatedly committed themselves to promoting sustained, broadly shared growth. But they have not made credible national commitments to advance this goal, and the leaders of Western democracies have failed to persuade skeptical national publics of the enduring value of an open, rule-bound international system.
Until last year, the G20 could depend on the United States to be its greatest champion. All that changed with the arrival of America’s first post-war “America First” president. At the 2017 summit in Hamburg, Germany, Donald J. Trump rattled G20 partners by refusing to reject protectionism or to endorse the Paris Climate Accord. The gathering “had been pitched as one of the most tense get-togethers of world leaders in many years,” the Guardian noted. “It did not disappoint.”
The Buenos Aires meeting could be tenser still. It comes on the heels of a disastrous G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, in June. That meeting collapsed into acrimony thanks to Trump, as the formerly close Western allies could not even agree on a final communiqué. In order to keep the United States on board in Argentina, its G20 partners have reportedly reduced their ambitions on issues sensitive for the White House, notably climate and trade.
The Buenos Aires Agenda
Over the years, the G20’s formal agenda has expanded, as host governments and national bureaucracies have added new ornaments to the proverbial “Christmas tree.” Beyond macroeconomic coordination, the G20 has ongoing initiatives designed to: empower women, fight corruption, strengthen financial governance, improve fairness of the global tax system, cooperate on trade and investment, advance climate action, and transition toward cleaner, more flexible, and transparent energy systems.
Argentina has identified three priorities for its own presidency, under the broad theme, “building consensus for fair and sustainable development.”
- The future of work. Rapid technological change poses dilemmas for all G20 members. The potential impact of automation on employment is perhaps the most volatile of these. Governments face the challenges of preparing workforces for higher-skilled jobs and expanding social safety nets as entire sectors threaten to disappear. G20 leaders are anxious to avoid winner-take-all scenarios in which some countries—not least China—seize the commanding heights of artificial intelligence and other innovations, leaving others far below and far behind.
- Infrastructure for development. A glaring gap in global infrastructure is one of the main impediments to achieving the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the G20, the world must invest nearly $100 trillion through 2030 in roads, ports, airports, dams, power plants, pipelines, rail corridors, electricity grids, digital networks, and the like if the SDGs are to be achieved. Mobilizing these funds will require leveraging massive but currently untapped private capital from institutional investors. One of the biggest official sources of infrastructure financing is China’s controversial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Other G20 countries will seek reassurances from China about the implications of BRI financing on partner nations’ debt levels, governance, and susceptibility to Chinese influence.
- Food security. Argentina’s third priority is “a sustainable food future.” Together, G20 countries account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land and 80 percent of its trade in food and farm commodities. Over the next three decades, food production must double to meet projected population growth and dietary changes. The challenge is to feed the world without killing the environment, so that crops and livestock do not denude nations of forests and deplete already overburdened aquifers and rivers. Argentina, which has made tremendous strides in agricultural productivity, is well-positioned to lead this conversation.
As this agenda indicates, the G20 has expanded its vocation well beyond that of economic fire brigade.
Beyond the Official Agenda: High Politics Comes to the G20
Some observers have suggested that the G20 should create a parallel foreign ministers track. The rationale seems obvious: If the world’s most powerful leaders are going to meet, why not have them discuss difficult matters of high politics, as well as finance? (That, after all, had been the G7/G8 trajectory; it had augmented macroeconomic discussions with initiatives in areas of peacekeeping, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism). The G20 has declined this role—at least officially. Finance ministers, who dominate the forum, worry that straying too far from the G20’s raison d’etre will dilute the group’s impact. And non-member states remain wary of any suggestion that the G20 seeks to become a global directorate, assuming duties properly left to the UN Security Council.
Still, it is impossible to quarantine G20 leaders’ meetings from matters of “high politics.” Whenever the world’s most powerful men and women gather, they will invariably discuss what is on their mind, whatever the official agenda. This year, three topics promise to dominate the leaders’ conversations—and the resulting headlines.
- Time out for trade war. As usual, much of the action will occur in sidebar conversations, rather than the main event. The most important will be a planned bilateral dinner between Trump and Xi Jinping. Investors hope the leaders will dampen the mutually hurting trade war, but the two sides remain far apart, as evinced by the failure of the APEC summit to agree on a final communique. “China has not fundamentally altered its unfair, unreasonable, and market distorting practices,” U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer declares, while Vice President Mike Pence warns that the United States is prepared to more than double its tariffs. Beijing calls U.S charges “groundless” and “totally unacceptable” and remains intent on pursuing its “Made in China 2025” agenda. The net effect of these and other incidents, according to at least one observer, is a gaping wound in the U.S.-China relationship, for which the G20 offers the prospect of a Band-Aid fix at best. Given current mistrust, even a truce seems unlikely.
- The Ukraine crisis. Russia’s brazen seizure earlier this week of three Ukrainian naval ships in disputed waters off the coast of Crimea presents a test that G20 members cannot ignore. Moscow has been isolated within the UN Security Council, and subject to scathing criticism by outgoing U.S. envoy Nikki Haley. Whether the president of the United States will join in this condemnation remains to be seen. At last year’s G20 summit, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at length, in private (controversially, without a U.S. translator or note taker). They are scheduled to meet in Buenos Aires. Will Trump reprimand Putin publicly for Russian actions in the Kerch Strait? Or will he once again pull his punches with the Russian leader?
- A cloud over MBS. The most toxic guest in Buenos Aires will be Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), under widespread suspicion of having ordered the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the kingdom’s Istanbul embassy. Argentine prosecutors are reportedly exploring arresting MBS under the principle of “universal jurisdiction.” That possibility appears remote, since the assassination while heinous is not a “crime against human rights.” Most leaders, beginning with Turkey’s Recep Tayipp Erdogan, will keep their distance from MBS (and presumably from the Saudi embassy). Less clear is whether Donald Trump, obsessed with Saudi arms sales and low oil prices, will also give the crown prince the cold shoulder. Regardless, it should make for an awkward group photo op.
The G20 today resembles nothing so much as an unhappy family. And its summit, like many a Thanksgiving meal, risks being upended by politics.