US President Barack Obama speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the opening session of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. (Cem Oksuz/Anadolu Agency via AP, Pool)
US President Barack Obama speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the opening session of the G20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 15, 2015. (Cem Oksuz/Anadolu Agency via AP, Pool)

A former colleague had a rule: no stories about how the G7 was a do-nothing organization. If the bosses found out, they might stop sending us to cover the meetings. Think of the air-mile points and the fancy dinners expensed to the company! We always found something to say.

The G20 has been going the way of the G7 for a few years now. It has been mostly incapable of re-energizing the global economy and completely incapable of securing IMF reform. The G20 positions itself as a champion of the WTO, yet the trade agendas of most of its members are focused on regional arrangements.

In 2010, the group may have hurt the global recovery by allowing Canada to make its ideologically driven policy of debt reduction a G20 priority. The 2014 pledge in Australia to boost gross domestic product by 2 percent did nothing to stop global economic growth from slumping, again, in 2015.

We excuse the G20 of its do-littleness because it did so much during the financial crisis. The reason to keep the band together -- and to keep coming out for the shows -- is that it will rise to the occasion when things turn really bad. The G20 is a “crisis fighter,” we say over and over again.  

On the eve of the Antalya summit, things turned really bad. The G20 was presented with a full-fledged crisis; dramatically different that what it faced in 2008-2009, but one that cried out for a unified response from the world’s most powerful countries. The attacks on Paris by Islamic State moved terrorism to the top of the international agenda. The general public was looking for someone to show the way forward. The G20’s response: a ponderous communique of more than 4,300 words and a statement on terrorism that failed to match the enormity of the events that inspired it.

On October 10, 2008, in Washington, G7 finance ministers scrapped their deputies’ draft and wrote a five-point plan on how they would confront the aftermath of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. The Paris attacks called for a similar response. Instead, G20 leaders apparently discussed the basket of currencies that backs the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, techniques to measure food wastage, involving smaller companies in global value chains, and dozens of other things that had nothing to do with terrorism.

In reality, it’s unlikely leaders discussed such arcana. Ahead of the meeting, the chair, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said the Paris attacks would force a new agenda. If so, then why release a six-page document that did little but reiterate existing G20 positions? The G7’s five-point plan in 2008 inspired confidence because it showed leading countries were flexible enough to adjust to shocks. In Antalya, the G20 looked stodgy and bureaucratic. Documenting a year’s worth of technocratic discussions appeared to be just as important as mounting a credible response to Islamic State.

Some might argue that the real communique was the statement on terrorism. In releasing it, the G20 showed its willingness to move beyond its core mandate of economic growth and financial stability. Thomas Bernes, distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, called the statement “strong,” and speculated that the Paris attacks may have brought about a major shift in G20 security cooperation.

I was less impressed. There were too few surprises in the statement to convince me that the G20 was ready to take a leadership role on terrorism. Leaders called the murder of more than a 200 innocent people in Paris and Ankara “heinous.” They condemned “all” acts of terrorism and they said religions shouldn’t be tarnished by such violence. These struck me as obvious -- if worthy -- points to make. Leaders pledged “enhanced” cooperation on freezing terrorists’ assets and tracking the movement of potential suicide bombers and gunmen across borders.

The average citizen of a G20 country might have been disappointed to learn that these things needed enhancing 15 years after September 11. If they did, and the Antalya summit provides the political drive to close such gaps, then the Turkish presidency can say it achieved something important. The sight of US President Barack Obama in a private huddle with Russian President Vladimir Putin showed the G20 has value in putting some of the world’s most important people in the same place for at least a couple of days each year.

But it was reasonable to expect more from the G20 on the weekend. The group is becoming a technocratic operation that seeks to enhance cooperation on matters such as tax and banking. There is value in that. Yet it has become obvious that the G20’s ability to do more is compromised by internal rivalries and political differences. “Like the [World Economic Forum], the group’s main output is news stories and pronouncements about trends and objectives over which the group collectively has little agency,” Christopher May, a professor of political economy at Lancaster University, wrote in an article for the Conversation.

That’s what they used to say about the G7. The G20 had an opportunity to re-establish its worth on the weekend. It failed.

The G20 had an opportunity to re-establish its worth on the weekend. It failed.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at CIGI and the national business columnist at the Financial Post.