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Whither G20? The future of multilateralism and global governance reforms

Article by Oksana Antonenko

September 8, 2023

Whither G20? The future of multilateralism and global governance reforms

As the world gears up for the G20 Summit in Delhi, the gap between growing demand for global responses to many urgent crises, and the ability of existing global governance institutions to resolve (or even to manage) them effectively continues to widen. With geopolitical tensions on the rise, the key question is whether the international community should continue to push for a comprehensive reform of these inclusive institutions, or even to accept (and actively endorse) their fragmentation into like-minded mini-lateral clubs such as the G7 or BRICS.


Global governance reform has been on the international agenda for many years, but the COVID pandemic and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine have elevated it to urgent priority. Paralysed by renewed confrontation between Russia and the democratic ‘West’, these inclusive institutions have no tools to contain, let alone to resolve, the current crisis in Ukraine, despite its devastating global implications. This failure to address urgent international security challenges comes on the heels of other recent disappointments: the World Health Organisation’s failure to ensure equal and fair global distribution of COVID vaccines; the World Trade Organisation’s inability to address the ongoing fragmentation of the global trade regime; and the apparent helplessness of the United Nations convened global climate summit (COP) – to avert catastrophic climate change. Can this trend be reversed, or have we arrived at the limits of global governance?


G20 was once viewed as an answer. Its more inclusive and geopolitically diverse membership coupled with refreshingly problem-solving origins and ethos, have been instrumental in helping to mitigate the consequences of the global financial crisis. Yet over time, the G20’s evolution has shifted its focus from urgent problem solving, turning more and more into a kind of geopolitical beauty pageant for the emerging middle powers. Amid pomp and ceremony, each presiding nation views its mission not to implement what was already agreed, but to stamp its own national mark on the process of re-shaping the emerging multipolar world. As a result, the list of G20’s priorities have multiplied, while successful solutions have stalled by the apparent lack of collective political will.


In this process, summits have become a marker of national prestige, rather than an exercise in problem-solving. The most important crises of the day were addressed not with actionable agreements, but with drafting compromises. And even these non-binding collective declarations are becoming increasingly unattainable, as more and more G20 summits end without an agreed statement. Despite its efforts and considerable diplomatic skill, India’s G20 Summit is likely to end in the same collective failure, as the Russian Government has already threatened to veto a joint statement containing criticism of its brutal war in Ukraine.


One important value of G20 summits – presenting a platform for side conversations (including strategically important US-China dialogue) – is also falling victim to a new trend of ‘forum shopping’. Authoritarian leaders prefer to attend summits at which they are admired or at least respected by other participants. President Xi’s decision to attend the BRICS Summit, hosted last month by South Africa, instead of the G20 could be interpreted as an attempt to avoid facing uncomfortable questions about China’s economy and its foreign policy from the US and its allies. President Putin, who is sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Delhi, will also not face any political accountability for his actions in Ukraine, yet still retains a veto power over G20’s statements.


Does it all mean that the G20, a symbol of inclusive global governance, has lost its value?


My answer is a cautious no. There are several reasons for sticking with it. The first one is that its ‘geopolitically selective’ peers appear to be even less well equipped to manage the current crises. Moreover, they offer less diversity in finding policy alternatives. The recent BRICS Summit in Johannesburg is a case in point. It may have attracted record attendance and accepted several new members, but it has made no headway on any pressing global problems (be it the war in Ukraine, the grain deal or climate change adaptation). Instead, BRICS membership offers emerging middle powers an opportunity to advance their multi-alignment strategy. They hope to secure additional aid and investment in exchange for indulging China’s and Russia’s geopolitical illusions that they are leading a ‘non-Western majority’. Unlike BRICS, the G7 has been re-energised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has since led the way in providing financial assistance to Kyiv and coordinating sanctions on Russia. However, the G7 alone cannot secure a sustainable and just resolution of the conflict. They need other key players like China or Turkey to cooperate in pressuring Moscow to change course.


The second reason for sticking with the G20 is that – with all its inefficiencies and frustrations – it enjoys more international legitimacy than any mini-lateral coalitions. This legitimacy through diversity has become even more important today, when powerful states no longer agree on the same set of rules and norms underpinning the global order. The G20 process helps to reaffirm some of these global norms, as each G20 Presidency is put into the international spotlight regarding its human right record, transparency and good governance. And the final reason for supporting the G20 is that it is much more than official summits, but a platform for engagement among NGOs, civic activists, youth, women, think-tanks and businesses. This community-building process may have a bigger impact in the long run on ensuring that the current geopolitical fragmentation should have its limits.


Oksana Antonenko is an independent consultant on geopolitical risk and a member of the FPC Advisory Council. She advises businesses around the world on how to assess, manage and forecast geopolitical risk. Ms. Antonenko is also a Global Fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington DC and a Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. For over 15 years of her career Ms. Antonenko was a Senior Fellow and the Head of Eurasia Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Later as a senior Political Counsellor, she advised the President and the Board of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on political economy in Russia, Turkey and Central Europe. Ms. Antonenko was a Director at the Global Geopolitical risk team at Control Risks. Ms. Antonenko published extensively on the European security topics including Russia’s relations with the EU and NATO, arms control issues, protracted conflicts in Eurasia, energy security and regional cooperation in the Black Sea area.

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