Foreign Policy
Thursday, March 31, 2011

Writing on his blog, Daniel Drezner questions whether friendly discord within the G-20 is indeed a constructive thing, as I argue in my recent Deep Dive piece, "Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era." Specifically, Drezner contests that the global public has no patience for such discord, that the issues most commonly discussed in the forum require solutions -- not just discussion -- and that the G-20, a relatively young group, lacks the institutional credibility to withstand perceived friction among its members.

The G-20 is not just a summit meeting of leaders. The G-20 has a very active track, which has been in existence since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, of at least biannual meetings of finance ministers and central bank presidents. In addition, G-20 deputies and G-20 sherpas often meet to advance the agenda for the leaders. More than that, as a result of the activities in the finance ministers/central bank presidents track, there is now a network of senior officials continuously active not only in preparation for G-20 meetings, but also in dealing with crises and unexpected challenges.

What this means is that the new, more inclusive configuration of major economies from every region of the world that constitutes the G-20 is a process -- communicating, consulting, and even, on good days, coordinating among 20 countries, not eight. The G-20, in other words, is not an event.  

The question that will determine whether the G-20 becomes a "dead forum walking" is not whether major agreements are reached at every summit, but whether the global financial system is safer and more stable, and whether the global economy is growing more rapidly and sustainably -- as a result of the G-20 process.

The jury is still out on that, but looking at the process rather than G-20 summits alone for the answers is the right place to look.

Compared with the less diverse, more like-minded G-8, the G-20 should be expected to have differing perspectives and conflicting views. Reading the other six of the seven "laws" I proposed, one can get a feel for how this diversity creates a different climate in the G-20 and how these new dynamics could make for a fluid diplomatic context that can benefit the United States and other countries: Ideology, prior alliances, and regional blocs have less salience; pragmatism, flexibility, and substance have greater roles, potentially.

But the role of the press is a crucial issue. Leaders can't lead unless they are seen to lead. What the public sees and what it understands about international efforts to reconcile policy differences depends not only on what leaders do but also on what the press highlights. If the press plays up policy conflicts at summits as the main story, then leaders aren't seen as leading but as disagreeing. As Drezner writes, "the only thing the public will digest from G-20 deadlock is that leaders can't agree." This is indeed true if that is all they are given to see. It's also precisely why we need to dig deeper when we talk about the G-20 in the public space.

After the Seoul G-20 summit, a group of think-tank experts, including me, surveyed the press coverage in national newspapers in capitals of a dozen G-20 countries. In contrast to the international press, which highlighted discord among G-20 leaders in Seoul, national press coverage in G-20 capitals was more balanced

Several national leaders explained to local media what had gone on behind the scenes in Seoul. The extent of progress was highlighted, country leadership by the G-20 committees was recognized, and in some cases the linkages of international positions to domestic politics were explained. This showed a much more robust relationship between the G-20 leaders and their publics than we had found in any of the previous surveys of four other G-20 summits. This occurred despite the higher degree of policy divergence in Seoul -- or maybe because of it. Perhaps national leaders felt a need to differentiate themselves from the international headlines to avoid getting linked to the policy conflict story line.

The issues go deeper than appearances and spin, as Drezner suggests. The issues go to whether an experiment in global diversity at the leaders level can take root as a new form of political process. The issues are hard global problems -- with domestic consequences -- and policy differences need to be addressed in a mature, serious way that engages all the various channels of the G-20 and other international bodies.

Ultimately, Drezner is right; "the G-20 rises and falls with its perceived [my emphasis] effectiveness." Let's hope both officials and the press work toward that end. But let's give G-20 officials time and not look for miracles at each and every summit. 

About the Author

Colin Bradford, former CIGI Senior Fellow
Topics: G8/G20

The opinions expressed in this article/comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors and/or International Board of Governors.