Those who believe in reincarnation, the idea that people receive their “just desserts” in succeeding lives, may wonder about Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Was he a sinner in a previous life, now repaid with the “wicked problems” of the Group of Twenty (G20) 2014 presidency? Or, was he a saint, rewarded with the unique opportunity to lead the G20 on a course to ensure Australian influence and long-term stable, sustainable and balanced growth for the world economy?
Proponents of the “sinner” hypothesis note that the G20 is over constrained in its role as the designated “premier forum for international economic cooperation.” Leaders, some without the appropriate technical expertise, are provided with very little meeting time to reach a consensus on policy approaches to highly complex problems, in difficult economic conditions. G20 countries have very different strategies and guiding principles, as well as dissimilar cultural approaches to decision making. The G20 has no permanent staff to provide continuity and institutional memory and no formal compliance measures with respect to commitments. It faces pressure from civil society and excluded countries to be substantively involved. Leaders face limits of command at home — Obama and the US Congress is an obvious example. All of these constraints are amplified in the atmosphere of high expectations and media scrutiny.
Proponents of the “saint” hypothesis note the exceptional chance provided by the G20 presidency to make history. Russia’s 2013 leadership did no harm, but the major problems remain unresolved. The stage has been set for 2014. At St. Petersburg, this past September, the G20 requested a series of reports for the Brisbane summit — on growth strategies, country-specific plans on employment, financing for investment, the structure of the Financial Stability Board (FSB), standards on ownership and trusts, concrete outcomes for development priorities, as well as the perennial topic of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. Skillful Australian leadership and adroit management of the preparatory process through 2014 will identify the initiatives that have win-win dimensions.
There are two basic ingredients for success. The first is to be ruthless with respect to the focus on priorities. Previous presidencies have announced a “back to basics” approach, but then caved to pressure, allowing the agenda to be diluted by adding other worthy issues for the discussion. The G20 is not the committee to save the world — it can be successful if it sticks to international economic cooperation. This means the primary role of the G20 is to ensure that the correct international institutional architecture is in place — the G20 is not in the business of implementing programs. The G20 should ensure that international institutions have the mandates and resources required, as international organizations do not reform themselves. If a new institution is required, the G20 could create it, as it did with the FSB (although more work is needed to establish it as the fourth pillar governing the global economy, along with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization.
The second ingredient is to invest heavily, and early, in the preparatory process. The fact is that while all G20 countries are equal, two are more equal than others. Australia should work closely with the United States and China to identify common ground and jointly prepare future proposals. Of course, when they get together, leaders will talk about whatever they want to talk about — Syria hijacked a lot of time at the St. Petersburg summit. But a well-argued idea for the G20 agenda from Australia, supported by the United States and China, will invariably have traction and gain consensus in the G20.
There will be many petitioners promoting a wide range of important issues for G20 consideration. They will be sincere, pressing and persistent, with articulate briefs. The Australian presidency must artfully and respectfully deflect them — the best strategy may be to devise the terms of reference for a report to be delivered in 2015 or 2016. There will be countless requests for consultation, and there is no escape from a sincere effort at outreach. But to make real progress, there must be a sustained effort, from the beginning of 2014, that, needle-like, focusses on a very limited number of pressure points. The approach must be strategic, expending effort to garner support from critical countries. Rumour has it that Prime Minister Abbott was a saintly acupuncture practitioner in a previous life; if so, the Brisbane G20 could be the most successful summit in years.