Leaders of 19 countries plus the European Union are still gathered at the Mexican resort of Los Cabos with a long list of things to do. Do not expect there to be much consensus in the conclusion — for the following five reasons.
First, it is difficult enough to forge agreement on complicated questions among five negotiators, as meetings of the UN Security Council have demonstrated for decades, but 20 is just too many. The 2008 financial crisis and the global slowdown which followed made plain that institutions dominated by the advanced industrialised democracies no longer reflect the world’s true balance of political and economic power. Attempts to bolster the global economy without support from China, India, Brazil, Russia, Gulf states and others had become impossible. Hence the Group of 20. Yet, it has since become apparent that only when each member feels threatened by the same challenge at the same moment and to more or less the same degree could an organization as unwieldy as this one produce anything more substantive than broad declarations of principle.
Second, the issue is not simply the number of negotiators. It is the wide range of political values and interests represented around the G20 table. It is not the “rise of the rest” that has shifted the terms of debate but the “rise of the different”. In the 1950s and 60s, the world saw the emergence (really the re-emergence) of West Germany and Japan. Though Japan’s surge created genuine anxiety in the US during the 1980s, fears were limited by the recognition that the Japanese, like the Germans and all other G7 members, were believers in free market democracy. There is no such consensus among today’s rising powers. As importantly, G20 members stand at quite different levels of development. Even where they have common political and economic values, poor countries have quite different hopes, fears, needs and plans from rich ones.
A lack of consensus can sometimes be overcome if a commonly recognized leader can set and drive an agenda. Leaders have the muscle, money and influence to persuade other governments to take actions they would not otherwise take. They pay the bills that others cannot afford and provide services no one else will pay for. The third reason why we cannot expect substantive results from the G20 is that, at least for the time being, the US will not provide the consistent leadership it has in the past, because American voters are telling pollsters that they want their elected leaders focused on American, not foreign, problems.
In fact, there is now greater public demand for a sharply reduced US role in the world than at any time since the end of World War II. The United States is the world’s only military and economic superpower and will remain so for years to come, but a 2011 survey of “long-range foreign policy priorities” conducted by the Pew Research Center found that the only priorities winning majority support from US respondents were protection of American jobs, protection of the homeland from terrorist attacks, and reduction of US dependence on imported energy. The percentage of those who favored “reducing the US military commitment overseas” surged from 26 per cent in September 2001 to 46 per cent in May 2011. “Promoting democracy abroad” won support from just 13 percent of respondents, and nearly half said the US “should mind its own business internationally”. With less US leadership, the challenges facing G20 leaders will only be more formidable.
The fourth reason that the G20 will accomplish little in years to come is that America’s most capable and reliable allies will not pick up where America leaves off. Europeans will be preoccupied for years with the bid to restructure European economic and financial governance to restore confidence in the eurozone and in the longer-term credibility of the broader European idea. Japan still has the world’s third largest economy, but it has also had 17 prime ministers in 23 years, complicated domestic reform questions to resolve, and last year’s triple disaster from which it is still recovering.
Finally, rising powers like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Turkey and the Gulf states face far too many complex development problems at home to accept unnecessary responsibilities abroad. In addition, the new players have comparatively little experience in managing the risks that arise from deeper involvement in global politics. Advanced industrial democracies have produced governing institutions, militaries, bureaucracies, companies, investors, lenders, NGOs and leaders with broad experience of international relations. Not so the emerging markets.
If America, Japan, and China will not make a major financial contribution to help refloat the eurozone, why will the European decision-makers that matter—in Berlin, Brussels, the European Central Bank, Madrid, and Athens—care what non-European leaders think they should do? How will developed and developing states agree on how to divvy up the risks and sacrifices that come with substantial reductions of carbon emissions? How can they agree on what do about Syria?
Don’t expect substantive answers to any of these pressing questions from this summit—or from G20 gatherings to come.