from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Syria Shows Why the G20 Needs a Foreign Ministers Track

September 04, 2013

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Ever since President George W. Bush invited leaders of the Group of Twenty (G20) to Washington five years ago, the annual summit agenda has been dominated by finance ministers and central bank governors. For a while, that made sense. After all, the rationale for the G20 was to rescue the world from the depths of the financial crisis and get the global recovery up and running. Afraid of diluting the body’s effectiveness, Barack Obama and his foreign counterparts resisted expanding the group’s remit beyond traditional economic issues like monetary and fiscal policy, financial regulation, trade liberalization, and development.

Unfortunately, that narrow approach is no longer tenable. As the only multilateral forum that unites, and is limited to, the most important advanced and emerging countries, the G20 must be allowed to  address the other critical challenges confronting the world, including matters of peace and security. This is the emerging lesson of the St. Petersburg summit, where the question of what to do about Syria will dominate conversation, even if it is not on the formal agenda.  It is high time for the G20 to create a formal foreign minister’s track, running parallel to the work of G20 finance ministers and central bankers.

This is not a new idea. In the run-up to last year’s summit in Los Cabos, the Mexican government hosted an “informal” meeting of G20 foreign ministers, where then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her counterparts discussed matters of common concern, including transnational crime.

This year, Syria has forced foreign affairs onto the G20 summit despite being absent from the formal agenda. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry of the United States and many of his foreign counterparts  plan to be in St. Petersburg to hold consultations on the unfolding crisis.

The St. Petersburg summit is merely the latest example of an issue of “high politics” intruding on what is ostensibly a summit on economic matters. In 1999, Bill Clinton and other leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum were meeting in Auckland,  New Zealand, when all hell was breaking loose in East Timor. Clinton and his fellow leaders helped craft the blueprint for an eventual Australian-led intervention force (INTERFET) under a UN resolution. Or take 2005, when the leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) were gathered in Gleneagles, Scotland, for a summit that Prime Minister Tony Blair had framed around the challenge of ending poverty in Africa. Al-Qaeda altered those best-laid plans with an assault on the London transport system, sending Blair and other leaders scrambling to stress their solidarity in the global war on terrorism. Likewise, during the Pittsburgh G20 summit in September 2009, the world was confronted with new revelations regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, leading President Obama to join with French President Nicholas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in condemning Teheran.

Of course, finance ministries, includuing the U.S. Treasury Department,  would love to keep their leadership over the G20 and its annual summits. Beyond defending bureaucratic turf, they are understandably loathe to see their heads of state or government spread themselves too thin by trying to address an ever-expanding agenda.

But the simple truth is that foreign affairs is not so easily segmented between the economic and the political. Experience suggests that when world leaders get together for a few precious hours of intimate conversation, they are not inclined to limit themselves to the formal agenda.

The solution to this quandary is a simple one: Create a parallel diplomatic track to the current G20 finance ministers track. The members of this G20 Foreign Ministers Forum would, like their finance counterparts, meet periodically during the year—and perhaps during crisis situations, too. And they would be present alongside G20 leaders during the annual summits.

Skeptics might argue that placing sensitive political and security matters on the G20’s plate is counterproductive and likely to accentuate diplomatic disagreements among the group’s diverse members. This critique is worth taking seriously. After all, the Group of Eight (G8) has survived as a forum in part because it unites (Russia excepted) a likeminded group of advanced democracies that take similar stances on matters like human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.

But the major limitation of the G8 is that it omits many of the most important players in today’s emerging world order, include rising powers like China, India and Brazil, important regional pivots like Turkey and Indonesia, and potential bridge-builders like South Korea. Their support will be necessary to address a range of global problems, from nuclear proliferation to global warming, to regional instability.

There is a world of difference, of course, between creating a forum to discuss the world’s most pressing non-economic challenges and actually ensuring collective action to resolve them. But surely the primary purpose of diplomacy is not to reinforce a preexisting consensus among the like-minded, but rather to try to bridge differences among the un-likeminded.