G20: vacuity and hope

Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), the site of the recent G20 summit. Photo: ekrem osmanoglu (@konevi). elcano Blog
Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), the site of the recent G20 summit. Photo: ekrem osmanoglu (@konevi). elcano Blog
Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), the site of the recent G20 summit. Photo: ekrem osmanoglu (@konevi)

Amid the global pandemic and acute economic crisis that has followed, the G20 has been found wanting. In fact, the G20 –which is a grouping (rather than organisation) of states accounting for two thirds of the world’s population and 85% of its GDP– responded well in 2008-09 to the economic and financial crisis of the time because there was coordination between its components, with their shared policies and interests. There was leadership from the US, the UK and France. In 2020, in the face of COVID-19 there was an initial ‘every man for himself’ reaction, some elements of deglobalisation and protectionism, and a lack of common or shared interests to a sufficient degree, although the race to open the public purse strings soon became widespread, with or without the G20. Saudi Arabia, tasked by rotation with chairing the G20 in 2020, has proved not only not to have been up to it, despite having convened 36 ministerial meetings, it has also shown itself only too clearly to be at the service of Donald Trump’s US. Perhaps after the Riyad summit, held online at the weekend, the G20 can change and make itself more useful now that a country with more weight, namely Italy, assumes the chair, with Joe Biden as the likely US President, more committed to a degree of multilateralism, which rather than being remoulded has to be reinvented. With the hope that digital diplomacy is replaced, when the pandemic is under control, by a much more effective and useful face-to-face version.

If Riyad had been an in-person summit, several leaders would probably have stayed away as a reprimand to the Saudi regime, specifically for the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Indeed, during the T20 online summit (the G20’s network of think tanks), the Saudi organisers censored Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel prize for economics, when he criticised this crime. Meanwhile a certain amount of political progress had been made, with the Saudi acceptance of, for example, the creation within the G20 of a study and measures to fight against corruption, with even a ministerial meeting devoted to the subject. The Saudi regime had hoped to use its chairmanship of the G20 and all the ministerial and civil society groups (the T20, B20, W20, etc.) to publicise its domestic social and economic (although not political) reforms in situ, but the pandemic thwarted it.

There had been no great expectations for this G20 summit, Trump’s last. The Riyad summit and its final communiqué is stronger on good intentions (some rather veiled) than on real lines of political action. True, from one summit to the next progress is made in terms of the vision and joint language. But there are few tangible results in the fight against protectionism in trade, pending the reform of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), which it supports. Progress was even made in the area of climate change, but the Saudis, with the support of Trump’s Washington, insisted on the idea of the ‘circular carbon economy’, which undermines the basic concept. Headway is nonetheless being made on climate change, if only among the signatories of the Paris Agreement, which excludes Trump’s US, something that may change if Biden’s presence in the White House from 20 January is confirmed.

The need for global connectedness, to ‘connect humanity by accelerating global internet penetration and bridging digital divides’, is a new and admirable goal. At the same time the G20 says that it wants to facilitate the free flow of data. But it should not be forgotten that there is great diversity, and diverging opinions and ideologies on this subject within the G20.

According to the IMF, wealthy countries have responded to the crisis by injecting the equivalent of 20% of GDP into their economies, while mid-ranking countries have injected 6%-7% and poor ones 2% or less. They need help. In this respect, the main outcome of the G20 this year has been to temporarily ease, although not waive, the poorest countries’ debts, in light of the pandemic’s impact on such economies, which is in line with the Paris Club of debtor and creditor countries. The finance ministers had already approved the extension of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative until June 2021. And progress has been made in getting the G20 to persuade the IMF to concede more Special Drawing Rights, often not used by the wealthiest countries –as in the case of Spain– to help the poorest economies emerge from the current crisis, although it is not explicitly mentioned. Support for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals was salvaged, despite the fact that for months Trump’s US, with the backing of others such as Brazil under Bolsonaro, did not want the subject discussed. The others also succeeded in including references to the need for multilateral initiatives in a range of areas. But it was a struggle.

The priority, given the arrival of vaccines against COVID, is to ensure universal inoculation. Calls for this were widespread at the G20 summit (except for Trump in his brief participation). But there are no solid plans. A good example is the COVAX project, led by Europe. Some leaders, such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, used the summit to present their country’s vaccine to the rest of the world. A new geopolitical rivalry over vaccines is under way. This time, however, it is a truly global problem and the vaccine ought to become a global public good (even if private companies are involved).

There were no public dramas at the G20 summit in Riyad, but nor were there major milestones. As priorities when it assumes the chair on 1 December, Italy proposes to take advantage of the current situation to catalyse a ‘positive change’, in the words of the Italian Sherpa, Pietro Benassi. Indeed, there has much use of the ‘build back better’ phrase that has been so much on the lips of Joe Biden, and now even Boris Johnson. The forthcoming Italian chairmanship of the G20 will try to look beyond the pandemic, with three conceptual Ps: People (focusing on inequality, women and social protection, among others), Planet (caring for it), and Prosperity, focusing on trade and the resilience of value chains, digitalisation, the problems of ageing societies, and the full circular economy, not just for carbon, to achieve a more inclusive and more sustainable multilateralism. No less.

As the economist Dennis Snower has argued, the G20, where Spain has permanent guest status, is a useful instrument of global governance when there is a convergence of interests and for dealing with three types of subject: (1) global public goods; (2) global inequalities, including trade and development; and (3) some social divides, including gulfs, such as the digital and the gender divide, as well as the fight against corruption and a fair global taxation system. The G20 enables processes to be coordinated and launched that subsequently have to be managed by other institutions, whether the UN and its agencies or the OECD, among others. It needs a permanent secretariat to facilitate continuity between annual chairs, but there is resistance to this. It also requires more representation from Africa, which apart from South Africa is absent, although the chairs normally invite African leaders and the G20 has become increasingly involved in the continent. If the G20 did not exist, it would have to be invented, possibly with a different format. It would be useful, while Italy is in the chair, and assuming he is confirmed as president, if Biden sponsored an early summit to revive the G20 and the global response to the crisis. We live in hope.