Meeting last weekend in Los Cabos, Mexico, for their first, “informal” gathering, G20 foreign ministers made a pivotal decision: to expand the G20 agenda to encompass pressing political and security matters. Patricia Espinosa, the Mexican foreign minister, emphasized that on crucial issues that “affect the lives of billions…the international community is failing,” and announced that the group would reconvene at the G20 leaders’ summit from June 19 to 20 to consider a raft of global issues ranging from transnational crime to green growth and food security.
For the G20, this represents a huge advance. Since its inception as a leaders’ level forum at the November 2008 Washington summit, the G20 has been dominated by finance ministers and central bank governors, who have fought to restrict its mandate to macroeconomic issues. Espinosa’s proposal—endorsed by Secretary of State Clinton—will help the G20 transition from an emergency economic committee to a more general-purpose steering group chaired by the most important developed and developing countries.
This shift is both inevitable and welcome. From the beginning, many have anticipated that the G20 would be drawn into a broader global agenda, either by design or by the intrusion of outside events. Indeed, the communiqué of that initial Washington summit hinted as much, committing the assembled countries “to addressing other critical challenges such as energy security and climate change, food security, the rule of law, the fight against terrorism, poverty and disease.” Certainly, the history of the G7 and G8 suggests that world leaders are reluctant to confine their remit to economic and financial issues. Indeed, they find annual summits irresistible opportunities to address a broader global agenda, particularly issues dominating the headlines. Over the past two decades, first the G7 and then the G8 expanded their agenda to include issues ranging from money laundering to nuclear nonproliferation, and then democracy promotion in the wake of the “Arab spring.” At the end of the day, leaders will speak about whatever they desire, regardless of the script.
For the past three years, finance ministries—including the U.S. Treasury—have fought a rearguard action to restrict the G20 summit agenda. At one level this made sense. The G20 was born in the depths of the global credit crisis, when the world economy was on the verge of collapse. The zenith of its success came at the London Summit of April 2009, when British prime minister Gordon Brown, U.S. president Obama, and their counterparts cobbled together an unprecedented global stimulus package to save the world from a second Great Depression. Since then, the G20 has had a much bumpier ride, as it seeks to grapple with longer-term challenges of “rebalancing” the global economy, coordinating exchange rates and financial regulations across twenty sovereign jurisdictions, and ameliorating the eurozone crisis. With so much left to be done economically, finance ministers have understandably fought against “mission creep.” The surest way to kill the G20, U.S. Treasury officials maintain, would be to saddle it with a sprawling array of global tasks.
To be sure, modest agenda expansion has already occurred. At the Pittsburgh summit of September 2009, where Obama declared the G20 the “premier forum for global economic coordination,” the assembled leaders gingerly entered the climate change fray, pledging to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. A year later in Seoul, the G20 embraced a role in advancing global development—heretofore the purview of the G8. Still, these changes have occurred at the margins. And last November in Cannes, the United States gave a cool reception to the Cameron Report on the future of G20 governance, in which the UK prime minister suggested that the G20 might lead reform in other bodies, including the UN Security Council. Beyond underscoring the dominance of the U.S. Treasury in U.S. policymaking, the U.S. attitude reflected a lingering attachment to the G8, which the Obama administration believed retained a comparative advantage in addressing sensitive political and security issues, given its largely likeminded membership. The G8’s solid performance in Deauville, where it coordinated international support to the Arab spring, appeared to give that venerable body a new lease on life.
As a long-term approach, however, restricting the G20 to economic issues is short-sighted and neglects the unprecedented opportunity the forum provides to forge new patterns of international cooperation. As Bruce Jones of New York University has cogently argued, the demand for new forms of cooperation between established and emerging powers is hardly restricted to the economic realm. It applies equally to other global issues, from climate change to nuclear proliferation and humanitarian intervention. The G20 is the only forum where the world’s established and rising powers meet exclusively, on an equal footing, to candidly air their differences and (hopefully) hammer out new principles, norms and rules of international behavior. It also provides an invaluable setting to calm inevitable frictions between the world’s two most important players—the United States and China.
The Obama administration, which has made the integration of rising powers a geopolitical priority, should embrace the new opportunities afforded by an expanded G20 agenda. The forum provides a chance for the United States to erode the bloc mentalities that often thwart cooperation within the UN, forge new diplomatic alignments spanning developing and developed countries, and negotiate breakthroughs on longstanding global bottlenecks—solutions that can be taken up and implemented by more formal organizations, from the UN to the World Trade Organization to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Of course, the G20 will not provide a magic bullet to solve the most complex challenges, like growing tensions with Iran, for example. Still, the G20 offers a more fluid environment for the United States to seek political buy-in from a more diverse swath of the world’s most important players. Clinton and Espinoza were right to seize this opportunity.