The fifth G20 summit held in Seoul seems to show signs of a gradual maturing of the process and the forum as a mechanism for communication among leaders and a means of connecting leaders and finance ministers with their national publics, judging from National Perspectives on Global Leadership (NPGL) country commentaries. These growing strengths — looking from the G20 capitals toward the Seoul summit contrasted with looking from the summit toward the countries — seemed particularly impressive at this Seoul summit, which was characterized by the most intense policy conflicts yet at a G20 meeting.

Policy Conflicts and the Trajectory of G20 Summits

The responses to the first question — “Did coverage seem to threaten or enhance the viability of G20 summits?” — seemed to indicate that, despite the conflicts over external imbalances and currency policies, these issues did not threaten the viability of the G20 summits as much as one might have expected.  Given the focus of the NPGL project on national leadership, what is interesting about this positive result is that the coverage in the media was not just of the debate itself, but the portrayal of their national leader at the summit. 

With the exception of an excellent and balanced article on Saturday, November 13 in The Washington Post by Howard Schneider and Scott Wilson, the coverage in Washington and in the Financial Times would lead readers to conclude that the Seoul G20 Summit was less successful than anticipated, and did not enhance the viability of G20 summits as much as the Koreans hoped it would. 

“Agreements did not have to be worked out,” Andrew Cooper wrote, quoting Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, “this month or next month in order to avert [a] cataclysm…I’m confident we will make progress over time.” 

Olaf Corry reported from London that UK Prime Minister David Cameron was quoted in The Guardian as saying that rebalancing “is being discussed in a proper multilateral way without resort to tit-for-tat measures and selfish policies.” 

US President Barack Obama said in his press conference that “in each of these successive summits we’ve made real progress.” 

Lan Xue and Yanbing Zhang wrote that Chinese President Hu Jintao “highlighted the importance of (the) framework (for strong, sustainable and balanced growth) and also pointed out that it should be further improved,” a far cry from a rejection of it.

“In contrast to previous summits,” Peter Draper reported from Johannesburg, “President Zuma’s interventions did receive some press coverage at home…To judge from this coverage, he seems to have played his cards reasonably well and to have been visible.”

Melisa Deciancio commented from Buenos Aires that ”Cristina Fernandez’s contribution to the G20 summits has always been substantive…She has also called the members of the (G20) to work together, cooperate and avoid entering into conflict in relation to the ongoing currency war between China and the US.”  

“Both (German Chancellor Angela) Merkel and (finance minister) Schaeuble spent considerable effort to explain the positive aspects of summit agreements and praised the ‘spirit of cooperation,’” reported Thomas Fues from Germany. 

In each of the cases above, the leader offered a positive interpretation of the Seoul G20 Summit and the G20 summit process even in the context of intense policy disputes, which constrained the practical agreements that could have been reached, especially on the global economic adjustment issues.  This optimistic stance indicates a forward movement by G20 leaders on a metric of global leadership in Seoul that the four previous NPGL “Soundings” had found to be wanting at previous summits. 

In some countries, the problem continued with the press focusing on the shortcomings and failures of the Seoul G20 Summit, including the coverage in the influential Financial Times. G20 leaders were, however, more aggressive in pushing against the media’s interpretation of weakness and failures at the G20, advancing an alternative narrative that focused on the gradual progress being made and stronger relationships developing with each G20 summit experience. Leaders now need to assure that the G20 “framework” and the “mutual assessment process” (MAP) of peer review that goes with it, are able to deliver a credible way forward for global economic adjustment by the time of the French G20 Summit in November 2011.

Global Economic Adjustment as a Visible Theme

With regard to question two — “How was the rebalancing issue dealt with?”— the common thread running through each of the country commentaries is reflected in Olaf Corry’s comment that “explicit mention of the G20’s formal ‘framework for strong, sustainable and balance growth’ is very sparse in UK public debate, but the themes it highlights definitely shine through.” The one exception may have been the explicit, detailed understanding of the issue conveyed by Schneider and Wilson in their Washington Post article titled “G20 nations agree to agree; Pledge to heed common rules; but economic standards have yet to be met.”  (See US country commentary.)

The G20 framework and the MAP may not have received much visibility or coverage from the media, but the intensity of the currency wars, the debate about US quantitative easing (QE 2) and the differences over current account targets were all widely covered, and the message communicated to most publics was that global imbalances are a real problem for all countries and a concerted global economic adjustment is essential.  The G20 leaders will, therefore, have to do far more than simply explain the process to their publics; they need to continue to push each other and their economic officials to reach agreement on a path forward by the time of the French summit in November of 2011. 

The difficulty of reaching agreement is reflected in a comment by Ryozo Hayashi of Japan who wrote, “Therefore, it sounds wise to let these countries (the US and China) keep their current policy paths with a political commitment to avoid a currency war and for the G20 to agree to develop economic indicators. It may become urgent or it may become irrelevant as the situation develops.  Given the difficulty of establishing agreed economic indicators, the time element would be important.”

Leadership at Summits and Its Linkages to Domestic Political Support

What emerged more clearly at this summit than in previous G20 summits was the degree to which the role of individual countries and their leaders (or finance ministers) in G20 processes had domestic political valence in their home countries. 

“The amount of attention devoted by the media to this summit was considerably more than previous ones,” wrote Andres Rozental, “partially because the Calderón administration will host the G20 in 2012 and Mexico is now part of the G20 ‘troika.’”  

Thomas Fues commented that “The media also appreciatively noted that Germany had been asked to co-chair the G20 working group on the international currency system, tasked with formulating policy proposals” for the French G20 Summit.  

In South Africa, Peter Draper also found that the press paid attention to the fact that it co-chairs the G20 working group on development with South Korea, and “the importance of this group’s work to the future of the G20.”  

“In terms of summit diplomacy,” wrote Andrew Cooper, “Harper’s main success was in gaining the role for Canada as one of the co-chairs (with India, supported by the International Monetary Fund [IMF]) with respect to the process of working out a set of economic indicators that all members of the G20 could use as guideposts for a stable global economy.” 

This is all evidence that G20 activities now generate positive repercussions in domestic public opinion.

Other dimensions of linkages between international committee positions assumed at G20 summits and domestic political capital are beginning to emerge as the G20 matures. 

In South Africa, Finance Minister Gordhan’s strong criticism of US QE2 in the international press seems “to have added to his growing reputation at home” commented Peter Draper.  

German Finance Minister Schaeuble’s criticism of the US Federal Reserve’s move as “clueless,” “forced Merkel to reiterate unswerving support of her key official” at the Seoul summit, Thomas Fues noted.

Cristina Fernandez has consistently and adroitly used her substantive policy positions at G20 summits to buttress her position at home.  Argentina is head of the G77, so Argentine support for development increases its status as a leader of the South and her domestic prestige.  Argentine discontent with the IMF has been legend since the 1990s; support of President Fernandez for the G20 framework and MAP process arises as an alternative to the IMF article IV exercise, which most Argentines are against, reported Melisa Deciancio.

Conclusion

Despite media attention being riveted on the showdown between the United States, Germany and China on currency manipulation and external imbalances at the Seoul G20 Summit, leaders defended the G20 processes for working through these issues over time, rather than emphasizing the failure to reach agreement at Seoul.  The leaders and their finance ministers found that taking an aggressive stance on key issues paid dividends in terms of their domestic political support.

Explicit efforts by leaders to link international policies to domestic politics is a positive step forward for G20 summits toward a greater engagement between leaders and their publics.  NPGL observers have been watching this dimension of G20 summitry in London, Pittsburgh, Toronto and now Seoul. (See: www.cigionline.org; Papers; “Soundings”)

The challenge going forward will be finding a way to align the global economic adjustment policy with domestic political linkages in a consistent and reinforcing manner, that will allow for policy convergence rather than the divergence manifested at the Seoul G20 Summit. 

 

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.