The Bali Summit presents an opportunity to refocus the G20, with greater emphasis on its role as a conduit among a wide range of actors and playing to its culture of interactions on the sidelines of the formal agenda
The Bali Summit on 15–16 November 2022 accentuates a turn in the nature of the G20 with considerable impact on the role of Indonesia as host. The original purpose of the G20 was to act as a crisis committee in the context of the 2008 global financial crisis. Although the degree to which this institutional forum achieved its goals continues to be contested, there is little debate about the magnitude of change captured by the creation of the G20 with respect to global governance.
Instrumentally, there has been considerable erosion of efficiency since the Toronto Summit in June 2010, at the start of the eurozone crisis. In this context, the predominant norm arising out of the G20 meetings was a shift towards policy differentiation as a result of differing national circumstances.
However, there is an important distinction between the loosening of the G20 process and the demand for its sustained functional performance. Notwithstanding the erosion of its initial – and intense – role in 2008 and 2009, as an institutional arrangement designed to stem the effects of the financial crisis, the G20 has been reinvented.
Although the G20 is effectively dead as a viable and visible crisis committee in collective policy terms, it lives on as a hub or apex focal point, with greater emphasis on the role of the G20 to act as a conduit among a wider range of actors and issues with a continued privileging of leaders. In essence, the G20 acts as a central point of attention or interest in the global governance architecture.
A core strength of the turn towards a hub or apex focal point structure is that it allowed the G20 indirectly or directly to inform and actively engage its governance by cutting across several global governance architectures at the same time. A good example is the endorsement of the 2016 Hangzhou G20 Action Plan on the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The differences between the G20 as a hub or apex focal point and the summitry of the G7 are reinforced by the sharp contrast in style in their operational culture. The G7’s main strength is an embedded culture of like-mindedness that allows dialogue on sensitive issues of mutual interest. In the G20’s evolution, the culture has shifted towards interactions often on the sidelines of the formal agenda.
In part at least, the accentuated turn to the G20’s focal point role is by default. That is to say, the G20 has not been brought back to life as a crisis committee during the Covid-19 pandemic. The G20 failed to materialise as a purpose-driven response instrument capable of meeting that crisis.
That said, the intensification of tensions between China and Russia, on the one hand, and the incumbents clustered around the G7 (with the suspension of Russia in 2014) on the other, reinforce the rationale for a focal point. Indeed, without the G20, the trend towards competing institutional types is given greater leeway with an expanded G7 on one side and an expanded BRICS on the other – squeezing Indonesia, among others, in the middle.
There are serious tests in the way of the smooth transition towards the G20’s role as a hub or apex focal point. In the past, this role was made far more difficult at the 2017 Hamburg and 2018 Buenos Aires summits by Donald Trump’s impulsive (and distorted) use of the G20 as a personalised focal point during his time as US president.
For the future, though, the key issue is how Russia’s Vladimir Putin is incorporated into the focal point design in a world where geopolitics, not global governance, has become dominant. As the host of the Bali Summit, Indonesia has been put into the pressurised situation of having to push back on calls by the United States and some of its allies to exclude Russia from the Bali Summit – a move that, if implemented, would mean the loss of credibility for the G20 in terms of the hub or apex focal point role.
To Indonesia’s enormous credit, such calls have been rebuffed. If such calls are inevitable given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then the G20 is more important than one single country or leader. In a best-case scenario, the G20 offers a prime site for mediation. But even without this type of functional performance, only by maintaining the summit process as a forum of (difficult) coexistence can the G20’s meaning be justified and even amplified.