G20 Membership and Process: The Unspoken Issues

June 7, 2010

Since its elevation to the leaders' level in November 2008, the G20 appears to have consolidated its position as the hub of economic governance. Moving from its initial role as an improvised "crisis buster," the forum has begun to take shape as a global “steering committee.” Notwithstanding its immediate institutionalized success, there are now a number of thorny and largely unspoken questions that need further attention. These challenges are especially evident with respect to both the membership and the process of the G20.

Issues of Representation

From its origins, the G20 suffered from some deficiencies concerning its size and geographic makeup. Although some have claimed that the makeup of the G20 reflects the structural shifts in global power at the start of the twenty-first century, the hold of Eurocentrism jumps out in its composition. In addition to the “big four” established members of the G8 (the UK, France, Germany and Italy), the President of the European Commission also gained entry. Moreover, from the first G20 summit in Washington, DC, the door has been left open for other European entrants. Spain has been the most successful of these additional countries, eventually obtaining the status of "permanent guest."

This over-representation of Europe is exaggerated by the image of the G20 not being inclusive of enough emerging countries. To be sure, all of the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are members of the G20. But after that, membership is determined not by the current position of individual countries, but by the legacy of the last major wave of financial shocks. For the composition of the G20 at the leaders' level is a carbon copy of the format of the G20 with respect to finance ministers created in the wake of the Asian crisis in the late-1990s.

The issue of regional imbalance is reinforced by the under-representation of the African continent. Whereas all three North American Free Trade Agreement countries as well as the two anchor countries of MERCOSUR — Brazil and Argentina — are included in the ranks of the G20, Africa's participation is minimized. The only country from the entire African continent at the "high table" is South Africa. Regional representation came about only at the second G20 summit at London through an invitation to the chair of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), at the insistence of the UK host.

The G20 Process

The issue of membership is made even more sensitive still by the nature of ownership in the G20 process. Up to now, all of the major hosting decisions have been made by the G8 members. US President George W. Bush called the G20 into action at Washington, DC. UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally invited NEPAD to the London summit. US President Barack Obama orchestrated the G20 process at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, deciding to have back-to-back G20/G8 summits in Canada at the end of June 2010 plus a stand-alone summit in South Korea in November 2010. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper determined the location and timing of the Muskoka/Toronto summits. French President Nicolas Sarkozy lobbied hard not only for additional European representation, but also for the G8 hosting cycle to continue following South Korea in 2011, so that France would chair the G20 in 2012.

Such an asymmetrical image of the G20 has a number of negative spillover effects. To a certain degree, it creates the impression that the G20 is a "concert" of big countries that can dictate the new rules to all the others. This attitude has been expressed in the UN General Assembly most vehemently by outliers, including Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela during the June 2009 "G192 Summit" on the financial crisis and international development. Another more nuanced and significant sign of a backlash comes via the so-called "3G" or Global Governance Group initiative led by Singapore, Switzerland and Qatar that promotes a more inclusive and consultative form of global governance.

The unstated but arguably far more serious challenge is that the big emerging powers will start to offset their roles within the G20 (if they don't feel a comfort level within the G20) towards more accented leadership in alternative organizations, whether the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRIC Summit or IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa). Such behaviour could eventually lead to the erosion of the centrality of the G20.

The shift of the hosting function away from the traditional G8 orbit to South Korea offers a new opportunity to face these challenges in a creative fashion. South Korea has a number of strong advantages in coming up to this task. Above all, it has credibility in playing a constructive bridging role between the traditional "owners" of the G20 process and other members and non-members alike.

Faced with the unequal membership in the G20, South Korea will find it difficult to rationalize European Union (EU) modes of representation by itself. However, if the US and other G20 countries push hard, the EU might be forced to work out more appropriate methods for coordination.

Opportunities for Seoul

South Korea also has the opportunity to systematize other forms of regional representation. One of the hidden success stories of the G20 process has been the South African initiative to engage the regional “Committee of 10” finance ministers ahead of the G20 meetings, providing an indirect form of access to a cluster of other African countries. This approach could be replicated in other regions or sub-regions.

World leaders turned to the G20 for action at the outset of the economic crisis because it is big enough to be representative while at the same time small enough to be effective. Expanding or overloading its membership will certainly affect both attributes negatively. Yet, if the issue demands it, ample space and flexibility for twenty-first century forms of outreach to countries on a functional basis should be employed. This could be done through meetings with a troika of Sherpas or careful use of variable geometry on key issues. The existence of a permanent G20 secretariat would facilitate such a process enormously.

As witnessed by its organizational dynamics, asymmetric leadership and "unfinished" agenda, the G20 should very much be seen as a work in progress. Indeed, it is the very agility of the G20, in format and delivery, which accords this forum so much promise, especially as it solidifies its role beyond a short-term “crisis buster” to the "premier forum" for international economic cooperation. Given the scope of the G20's ambition, refining the structure so that it combines a core membership with some degree of accessibility will only enhance its credibility.

Andrew F. Cooper is a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, Ontario.

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