The G20 amid geopolitical crisis
G20 Summit

The G20 amid geopolitical crisis

The war in Ukraine is once again overshadowing the G20 summit and stalling progress across the group’s agenda – but despite a lack of full consensus in some areas, progress is being made

For the second time, G20 leaders meet against the backdrop of war in Ukraine. More than ever, the likelihood that they will reach a consensus communiqué at the New Delhi Summit is remote. Even if the Indian host manages to forge an agreement, it is unlikely to address the major crisis that most threatens international peace, stability and – of chief concern for this economic club – growth. With no end in sight to the war or the multiple crises it has precipitated, the situation raises the question of whether the G20 can work in this context of open geopolitical contestation.

The G20 was elevated to the leaders’ level in response to the 2008 global financial crisis. The club assembled as the world’s crisis committee, effectively mitigated the worst effects of the financial crisis and steered the world to a stable and more equitable economic footing. Although the G20 includes rivals with diverse political systems and often divergent foreign policy aims, members nonetheless succeeded in coming together and responding to the global financial crisis because all stood to benefit from cooperation – not just because halting the collapse of the international financial system would protect their own economies, but because forging a new top governance table constituted major and much needed global governance reform to create a more equitable and just international system.

A world in turmoil

Fifteen years later the world is again in crisis. The war in Ukraine in and of itself warrants international concern, as a humanitarian crisis as well as a crisis of the rules-based international order premised on the inviolability of sovereign territorial integrity. More than this, though, the war has precipitated economic crises from global food insecurity, to soaring energy prices, to runaway inflation. This turmoil hits while the world remains downstream of the Covid-19 pandemic, with supply chains still disrupted, global trade still depressed and development finance continuing to lag behind target. Making matters worse, how central bank governors and political leaders respond to this turbulence could crash the global economy, thrusting the world into a worse position than it was in 2008. In all, things are not well.

Unlike in 2008, the G20 cannot rise to the moment. The global financial crisis saw rivals coming together, but in 2023 rivalry has turned to outright antagonism. G20 members now find themselves openly pitted against one another with no scope for resolution. India’s G20 presidency has been plagued by this in almost every major meeting ahead of the New Delhi Summit, with Russia and China consistently disassociating themselves from working group paragraphs that mention the war in Ukraine. The G20 is premised on consensus decision-making and yet this year it is in especially short supply.

This does not mean, though, that the G20 cannot continue to function. It means that we need to lower our expectations for its role in global governance and be realistic about its limits as a governance group. The current historical moment reveals that the G20 is not a committee that can respond to any crisis. While it adeptly addressed the global financial crisis, it could only do so because that crisis was economic in origin and economic in remedy – a situation that allowed this diverse and divergent group to galvanise and respond with technocratic solutions. In sharp contrast, when it comes to international war – a political crisis necessitating political solutions – the G20 is ineffective.

The G20 was never intended to be a forum for resolving geopolitical contestation – that is more the purview of the United Nations Security Council – but the problem, as India’s G20 presidency has particularly wrestled with, is that the war stymies progress across the group’s agenda. Nonetheless, the G20 can continue to advance policy at the technical level. The G20 working groups may not have achieved full consensus, but still made strides on non- or low-political issues. As with Indonesia’s 2022 presidency and the Bali Summit, India’s G20 will be able to herald multiple achievements at the New Delhi Summit’s conclusion, even if these policy highlights are dimmed by the shadow of war. Agreements deserve to be celebrated and congratulated, even while they pale in significance to the larger, unaddressed crises that threaten international order itself. No matter the outcome at New Delhi, it is important not to lose sight of just how precarious a position the world is in.