In London, the G20 has rather faded from view since Gordon Brown’s great event in Docklands in the spring of 2009, when a $1tn global stimulus was announced. (We await a final audit of this figure). It is hard to bring to mind any solid achievements to which it can claim credit since then. But in Davos, where Gs x & y are part of the currency of debate over breakfast, it is still alive and kicking. Indeed one reason why there is such a large Russian presence here is that Russia holds the presidency this year. They will be followed by the Australians in 2014. After digesting that recherché fact, who dare suggest that one does not learn interesting things in the Swiss mountains?
Another riveting factoid is that the G20 has spawned subsidiary creatures. There is the B20- a group of business leaders from the member countries, and indeed the L20, made up – you guessed it- of Labour unions from the same. Maybe there is a P20 composed of Professors (I would hate to discover that existed and I had not been invited), and even an H20 for journalists?
So what will the Russians do with their new toy? That was the topic of a long session full of Russians and Australians, and notably empty of Americans and Europeans. Both have always been suspicious of the G20, in which their influence has been notably reduced, by comparison with the precedent G7.
Kevin Rudd, the ex-prime minister, and ex-everything else in Australia, spoke well in support of the group’s achievements, though they were described as in the nature of: “Meaningfully moved forward the ongoing agenda on eliminating bad things and supporting really nice ones”. Amen to that. He argued strenuously for a new effort to revive the Doha round of trade talks, beginning with a new trade facilitation agreement, which he said would produce an immediate cost reduction of 10 per cent on trade of $22tn. One senses there must be some catch here. It sounded like one of those emails you get telling the lucky winner she has won the lottery, if only she first deposits a sizeable sum in an account in the Cayman Islands. Even Pascal Lamy, the WTO director-general sitting discreetly in the audience, looked a touch sceptical.
And it was downhill from there. A Chinese professor argued for a clear G20 statement in favour of nuclear power. I can just see Angela Merkel signing up to that. The International Labour Organization wanted new and tougher labour standards and a collective commitment to reduce unemployment. Others wanted the G20 to be an “advocacy organisation”. Advocating to itself, one presumes, as it is made up of governments.
The Russians listened to all this agenda-setting with polite indifference. For their part they showed some interest in pressing the US finally to agree to implement International Accounting Standards, which would indeed be a fine thing: the SEC has been stalling shamefully for years. Even that modest aim will cause big trouble with the absent hegemonic power. They also plan to have a look at dangerous trends in the deglobalisation of finance, as banks retreat to home base under regulatory pressure.
But it is hard to see any game-changing moves in prospect. The G20 seems condemned to drift along, unloved and unremarked, until the next crisis, when world leaders will no doubt touch a different G-spot in search of instant gratification.