G20 Summitry: The Need for Global Political Leadership

October 18, 2011

As a global leadership forum, G20 summits provide an opportunity to transform international interactions into new patterns of negotiation and new forms of behaviour, resulting in new global breakthroughs. So far, leadership within the G20 forum has, however, been tentative, minimalist and too often narrowly circumscribed by the primacy of member governments’ domestic concerns and constraints. G20 leaders have yet to hit their stride in finding modes of discourse, debate and decision that strengthen global regimes for managing global challenges and that convincingly address the anxieties and concerns of their publics.

Along with the more widely acknowledged crisis in economics and finance, there is a deep-seated political crisis of trust in national and global leadership. Polling evidence suggests that trust in political leaders in G20 countries is at historically low levels.[1] Leaders have failed to think through in advance what matters most to publics, and to articulate a vision of concerted action by the G20 that corresponds to these vital hopes and concerns.

Leaders at Cannes in November and at the Mexico summit next June have a chance to change the script and write a new narrative for the G20. They need to focus on exercising effective political leadership that leads to solid policy outcomes responsive to public concerns. 

The first step toward strengthening global leadership would be to delegate the more technical aspects of the G20’s economic agenda back to finance ministers, and define the high ground that is appropriate for leaders in ways that more directly resonate with people’s concerns. 

Understandably, at the moment of the 2008 financial crisis, the leaders focused the whole of their efforts on steering the world economy away from the brink and onto a path of recovery. But the technical agenda of finance ministers has continued to dominate at recent summits. While, for example, the G20 Framework for Strong, Sustainable and Balanced Growth is an important new mechanism for international economic cooperation, the G20 economic agenda is too technical for the general public, most of whom will never understand the complexities of exchange rates and current account rebalancing.

The economic exigencies cannot be ignored. Leaders, however, need to focus more directly on domestic public concerns such as jobs, livelihoods, security and planetary survival, and emphasize the vital links between these domestic anxieties and addressing global challenges. Polling data can be used to identify these top public concerns as well as the kind of discourse that will resonate with the public. G20 summits should become vehicles for expressing leadership on these fundamental concerns, and making a credible vision of the global community, connected to national societies and local settings. 

Parliaments should be brought into the picture as they are crucial to taxation policy, financial regulatory legislation, pension-social security-health insurance reforms, employment policies and other issues vital to the G20 agenda. Leaders need to form mechanisms for the involvement of parliamentarians in the G20 agenda. Networks such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank, among others, should be linked systematically to G20 processes and work.

There has been a woeful failure by leaders to use the presence of national press corps at summits to connect directly with their publics and parliaments.[2] G20 leaders need to use summits as “teaching moments” to communicate key messages on the links between global forces and domestic conditions, and to demonstrate positive feedback loops from global decisions to domestic improvements in people’s lives. National leaders have lost control of the summit narrative, letting the international media write it for them, too often in unflattering terms that highlight national differences and esoteric “exchange rate” or “currency” conflicts.

The leaders should differentiate themselves at Cannes, where undoubtedly the European crisis means that the economic agenda could overwhelm other initiatives again. One way in which leaders could lead is by announcing two major action items that go beyond financial stabilization and sovereign debt workouts to address peoples’ concerns for growth and sustainability. 

G20 leaders could announce a global infrastructure investment action plan to be supported by expanded lending by the global and regional multilateral development banks to generate jobs, productivity growth and economic integration worldwide, boosting incomes, demand and exports globally. Second, they could support a major effort by nuclear powers to strengthen nuclear safety and security to reverse the nuclear backlash in the wake of Fukushima, and to stimulate long-term investment in nuclear power plants to provide long-run job growth in highly skilled sectors, and generate cleaner-than-coal electricity. France, with 80 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear plants, is the ideal launch for such an initiative.

These two proposals by G20 leaders could complement the financial measures being developed by finance ministers and create an overall thrust toward job growth, financial stability and environmental sustainability. Publics would perceive a larger vision, more integrated and balanced, in which necessary moves to stem the current phase of the financial crisis would be linked to actions to address peoples’ needs for sustainable livelihoods and a healthier planet.

[1] See Bruce Stokes (2011). “Public Attitudes in G20 Countries.” In Global Leadership in Transition: Making the G20 More Effective and Responsive, edited by Colin I. Bradford and Wonhyuk Lim. Pages 285–297. Washington: The Brookings Institution Press. (Results based on 2010 Pew Global Attitudes Survey and the German Marshall Fund 2010 Transatlantic Trends Survey.) See also Dennis Jacobe (2011). “Americans Trust Governors, Business Leaders Most on Economy.” Gallup Poll. April 14. Available at: www.gallup.com/poll/147095/americans-trust-governors-business-leaders-economy.aspx.

[2]  See Colin Bradford et al. (2011). National Perspectives on Global Leadership: Soundings Series — Summitry and Public Perceptions. A joint CIGI-Brookings Institution Project. A network of think tank experts from a dozen G20 capitals have observed G20 leaders through the lenses of reporting by national newspapers in G20 countries at five G20 summits. Available at: www.cigionline.org/project/national-perspectives-global-leadership.

Part of Series

Prescriptions for the G20: The Cannes Summit and Beyond

As leaders of the G20 nations prepare for their summit at Cannes, France on November 3-4, CIGI experts offer policy analysis and prescriptions on the most critical issues amid growing uncertainty about the global economy and the G20's effectiveness as an international policy forum.

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