The key message is clear: the G20 prevails over the G8 in the public mind of G20 emerging market countries, with continuing ambivalence in public perceptions in some G8 countries. The divergence between Cameron-Harper-Merkel and the Obama administration, with support from Brazil and India, on fiscal consolidation versus fiscal stimulus, left a dominant impression of disunity among G20 leaders on fundamental issues. This, along with the delay on conclusive financial regulatory reform, which was anticipated, and discord on bank levies and transaction taxes, fed the notion that the Toronto G20 Summit was less successful than the Washington-London-Pittsburgh sequence. Except for Japan, the G20 “Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth” was not a visible part of the Toronto G20 Summit, nor was it a template for understanding, communicating and strategic thinking about the divergence in fiscal stances. The Canadian emphasis on implementation and assessment of the degree of follow-through on previous commitments backfired; first, at the G8, where not having met the Gleneagles commitments on development aid generated consternation in international NGO communities, and then at the G20, where there was greater focus on current tensions and future prospects, leaving “achievement” as something important to professionals but of little consequence to the larger public, and even in the opinion of the elite. These observations lead to some rather obvious conclusions, which appear at the end of this synopsis.

The Role of the G8 in the G20 Era

The rise of the G20 seemed to be confirmed in the public media and opinion in all of the emerging market economies surveyed, and in most of the industrial countries reviewed.

Brazil: “Given the weakness and obsolescence of other fora, such as the UN, the G20 has emerged as the leading venue in global governance.”

China: “Overall, it seemed clear that China supports the G20 rather than the G8+.”

South Africa: “The G20 had replaced the G8 as the premier international policy coordinating forum.”

Argentina: “After the Pittsburgh summit, public opinion in Argentina welcomed the pre-eminence of the G20 over the G8…. There has been no coverage on the relationship between the G20 and the G8 or on the effectiveness of the G8 during the present economic crisis.”

Mexico: “Most of the analysis surrounding the Toronto summit also dealt with the future of the G8 and the fact that the issues the group addressed in its meeting were of less ‘consequence’ to Mexico than those on the G20 agenda.”

Turkey: “The Pittsburgh decision that the G20 would be ‘the premier forum for international cooperation’ was welcomed by the Turkish public — at least as far as public media commentary and elite editorials were concerned. It appears that most commentators consider the issue settled.” 

Australia: “It is worth noting that while the political obituaries of Rudd penned to date have been quite critical, they have also stressed that one of his most significant foreign policy achievements involved his role in securing the recent elevation of the G20, which is still seen as a major win for Australia.”

Canada: “There was discussion on how the emergence of the G20 was sidelining the G8 and establishing a more representative forum for international economic cooperation.”

Germany: “There is a clear sense in the German media that the G20 has taken over from the G8 as the premier forum of global policy coordination.”

United Kingdom: “Post-summits, however, the mood seems to be that the G20 has ‘eclipsed the G8’” (The Independent) and “that if it (the G20) did not exist, it would have to be invented (The Guardian).”

In several advanced countries, however, there was a sense of ambiguity, reflected first by the sequence of the G8 and G20 summits organized by the host country, Canada, and then also by the ambivalence observed in France, Japan and the United States. Jacques Mistral reports that French President Nicolas Sarkozy may have decided “to separate the two meetings” by holding the G8 in the spring and the G20 in the autumn, a major improvement over the decision by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold the G8 the day before the G20, giving the impression of the traditional powers making decisions before the large G20 summit taking place the following two days.

G20 Conflict or Cooperation

Much like the run-up to the London G20 Summit when there was a major debate between the United States and the United Kingdom on one side and Continental Europe on the other about whether automatic stabilizers counted as discretionary fiscal stimulus, the run-up to the Toronto G20 Summit was characterized by a deep debate regarding fiscal consolidation versus fiscal sustainability between the United States on the one side and Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada on the other, with Brazil and India weighing in on the side of continuing stimulus to keep export markets growing. This was, without a doubt, the main storyline from the Toronto G20 Summit, just as it would have been from the London G20 Summit, if leaders in London had not trumped it with the announcement of US$1 trillion in financing for the IMF as the fallback story. In the NPGL country commentaries on the Canadian summits, there is evidence that the divergence on fiscal policy was the dominant story in all media markets, which made the Toronto G20 seem less successful than previous G20 summits.

The G20 Framework

Except in Japan, where “‘strong, sustainable and balanced growth’ was not unfamiliar” as a domestic political discourse, and in Australia, where there was “a degree of elite engagement with the concept of a G20 ‘Framework,’” the G20 Framework was invisible in the G20 capitals surveyed here, despite the rancorous debate about fiscal policy.

“Public engagement on the Framework is definitely not in cards, given that the elites are not focused on it,” writes Olaf Corry from London. The G20 Framework “was indeed ‘too woolly’ an issue to arouse serious interest by the business and financial communities” in Brazil, writes Georges Landau from Sao Paulo. Eser Şekercioğlu indicates that “there is little public engagement on the subject” in Turkey; and Jacques Mistral reports that there is “absolutely no reference to the Mutual Assessment Process (MAP), the framework or any institutional topic” in France. And from Melisa Deciancio, we learn that, “Given the scant coverage of the G20’s ‘Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth’ in Argentina, one must conclude that the details may indeed be too complex to be of broader public interest.”

G20 Record of Achievement

The unanimous view of all of the country commentaries in this round of NPGL Soundings is that while the Canadian effort to take the issue of implementation and fulfilling summit commitments seriously had meaning to the policy makers and professionals involved, it was not an important issue in terms of the viability of G20 summits in the public mind. The public and opinion leaders seemed more concerned with content than process. While international NGOs rallied over the failure of the G8 countries to meet the Gleneagles commitments on official development assistance, there was little interest in the accountability matrix of G20 summits itemizing commitments and measuring results. It seemed that implementation was more a technical accounting exercise than a political accountability process. What this seems to mean is that while this effort needs to continue as part of the G20 work program to keep the process going, there is not an alert, engaged public “out there” eager to hold G20 leaders’ feet to the fire. Implementation seems to have little valence as a manifestation of political leadership, and may not gain much ground with public opinion as a “messaging” or summit communications strategy, either.

Conclusions

Looking at these country commentaries and reviewing the thrust of the observations in the G20 countries surveyed in this round, several conclusions seem to be apparent.

First, leaders failed to embed their fiscal policy debate in an integrated global economy perspective, in which the real issue is whether expansionary fiscal and monetary policies in some G20 countries will be sufficient to offset contractionary austerity policies in other G20 countries. Instead, there was a push for all G20 countries to agree on the same fiscal policy path, rather than an attempt to evaluate the divergent policy preferences now within a longer-term global economy perspective.

This is both a policy and communications failure, which means it is a failure of political leadership. This must be addressed. It is not just that the public does not understand the real game of G20 summits: the G20 leaders themselves have not yet risen to the new game they are playing and grasped the significance of the difference between the larger, more diverse G20 and the smaller G8 or regional summit settings, where an integrated vision is not possible as all of the systemically significant players are not there.

Second, the utter void in the articulation of the G20 “Framework on Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth” as a communications vehicle for explaining the fiscal debate and embedding it in a longer-term, more integrated framework, meshes with the mismanagement of the fiscal policy debate. The G20 Framework was precisely the communications tool that would have helped bridge the gap between deficit “hawks” and deficit “doves” and convey a sense of common strategic direction over the medium term.

This opens up an opportunity for the Korean leadership of the Seoul G20 Summit to not only focus G20 ministers and leaders on the Framework as a policy process for evaluating, adjusting and reconciling the macro-policy paths in G20 countries over the medium term, but also to get the message straight in advance of the Seoul G20 Summit in November, thereby avoiding a third recurrence of policy divergence dominating the headlines before, during and after G20 summits.

Ordinary people around the world look to political leaders to work together to coordinate their actions to both avoid another financially induced economic crisis and to steer the global economy toward recovery. The public wants to see leadership move toward a more stable and dynamic future, in which economic growth is “strong, sustainable and balanced.” The G20 Framework is not an overly complex intellectual construct. It is a strategic vision that represents the aspirations of people everywhere.

Leaders are required to act in ways that realize this vision and communicate in ways that convey it as a shared vision that is a political and policy imperative, not a fancy construct. This can be done if leaders commit to the G20 Framework and its MAP and G20 peer review as mechanisms to make it work. Once on this common path, leaders need to explain it to their publics, take ownership and use it as a tool for demonstrating leadership toward a shared common vision. Anything less threatens the stability and growth potential of the global economy and undermines the international leadership necessary to steer it forward on a sustainable and balanced trajectory.

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.