The Hollowing Out of the G20

Since helping to mitigate the global financial crisis, the G20 has degenerated from a platform for action to a forum for discussion. In the age of Donald Trump, it could sink even further, becoming a vehicle for legitimating illegal behavior, from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to Saudi Arabia’s murder of a journalist.

WASHINGTON, DC – In the run-up to this year’s G20 summit in Buenos Aires, observers have been buzzing about the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump. But with the announcement that the current international bête noire, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), would attend the event, followed by Russia’s naval attack against Ukrainian ships in the Kerch Strait, that meeting suddenly seems like an afterthought.

Now, instead of jostling for pictures of Trump and Xi, the world’s media will be dissecting interactions between MBS, accused of ordering the brutal torture and murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Those between Russian President Vladimir Putin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel – which would have been uncomfortable even without the recent attack on Ukraine – will also be heavily scrutinized.

None of this is the point of a G20 summit. What used to be an effective forum of global governance has now degenerated into a kind of Kabuki theater – a faithful reflection of the extent to which the global order has lost its way.

After the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, the G20 acted as an international crisis committee, mitigating the disaster by injecting liquidity into markets worldwide. The effectiveness of the G20’s 2008 and 2009 summits raised hopes that, at a time of rapid change, this emerging platform, comprising economies accounting for 85% of world output, could serve as a global fire brigade. Not bound by procedural rules or legal strictures, the G20 could respond quickly when needed. There was even talk of the G20 intervening in a wider range of areas, potentially even eclipsing the United Nations Security Council.

But, as is so often the case, as the sense of urgency waned, so did the will to tackle deep structural challenges. As it became increasingly institutionalized, the G20 was drained of its vitality. Important proposals, such as International Monetary Fund voting reforms, were not implemented. At the same time, the G20’s agenda became cluttered with issues – from climate change to gender equality – making it less a platform for action than a discussion forum, at a time when what the world really needs is a proactive and dynamic player.

To be sure, the G20 has offered a convenient framework to coordinate responses and, sometimes, to generate and disseminate innovative policy ideas, such as those relating to energy transitions and infrastructure finance. But even that limited functionality has lately been obscured, owing largely to Trump’s treatment of multilateral fora not as important mechanisms to coordinate international action, but rather as opportunities to project strength.

The recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea is a case in point. Sino-American competition, rather than concrete policy responses or coordination, dominated discussions, to the point that the summit did not even end with a final communiqué – a first in APEC’s 25-year history. Similarly, at this June’s G7 Summit in Quebec, Trump withdrew US support for the final communiqué, following a personal spat with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Now, the G20 is little more than a theater of power. Images of MBS at the summit, interacting with fellow world leaders, will shift the narrative away from his actions, signaling a tacit international acceptance of his behavior and opening the way for a return to the status quo.

Similarly, if the summit concludes without any unified condemnation of Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait, Putin will have scored an important victory: the international community’s tacit acceptance of his illegal annexation of Crimea. Even if European leaders offer some criticism, this is likely only to highlight deepening divisions in the event that the US doesn’t back them – a consolation prize for Putin. (In this respect, Trump’s suggestion that he may cancel a planned meeting with Putin because of the incident is a positive sign.)

Could the hope of using the G20 summit to normalize his aggression against Ukraine have informed Putin’s decision to raise a freedom of navigation issue in the Kerch Strait at this particular moment?

The deterioration of the G20 into a platform for narrow, self-serving, and image-focused gambits is a symptom of a rudderless global order. With no clear impulse for reform and a lack of international leadership, the G20 is adrift. As long as those who should be steering the ship are preoccupied with photo-ops, it will not get back on course.

This does not have to be the case. G20 leaders can – and should – refuse to smile for the cameras and sweep everything under the rug. Their condemnation of Putin and MBS will not change either leader’s behavior. But it will send the message that, at the very least, right and wrong still have meaning on the international stage.

The G20 is no longer an agent of action or even an agenda-setter. The least our leaders can do is prevent it from becoming a vehicle for legitimating illegal acts. It is a low bar, but that is where we are.