The return of politics
G20 Summit

The return of politics

With the G20 experiencing mission creep and weighing in on topics well beyond its original remit, growing political divergence within the group could well hinder its effectiveness

The G20 was first established as a novel sort of governance group that would address pressing financial and economic issues by largely technocratic means. The club was premised on there being settled agreement among its members – that the global economic order is a neoliberal one, and that its management is best conducted through a set of policy instruments at the disposal of state governments and central banks. In this way, the G20 is a creature of the mid-1990s ‘end of history’ moment in which it was first assembled – imagining that in the aftermath of the Cold War the world’s leading challenges could be addressed by a post-political institution.

This consensus served the group well, particularly in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, affirming the G20 as the top table of global economic governance and supplanting the G7 in so doing. In the years since, the G20’s remit has expanded well beyond its original purpose and design, with the club weighing in on topics ranging from climate change to health to development. A key problem with such mission creep, though, is that as the nature and number of topics the club claims competency over proliferate, it becomes ever more difficult to avoid political divergence within the club.

Members at odds

The problem is further compounded when issues beyond the G20’s expanded remit position its members decisively at odds with one another. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation at levels unseen since the 1970s and US-China tensions continuing to build, history has come roaring back in 2022.

While there is rightfully much focus on Ukraine now, we have been heading down this path for some time. The cracks most noticeably began to appear with the United States turning its back on climate change and the liberal economic order in 2017. In the time since, the forces that caused such a radical departure in US foreign policy under the Trump administration have accelerated and intensified globally. Nationalism, militarism and protectionism are no longer comfortably consigned to the past, nor are they confined geographically.

The G20 is not designed for this kind of world. While a more diverse and inclusive group than its institutional forebear, the G7, its representative legitimacy does not translate into expedient efficacy in such a contentious environment. The G20 has always been composed of competitors on the world’s stage, but in today’s historical moment, it is significant – and worrying – that rivalries are now becoming adversarial. Rivals can govern in concert; adversaries cannot.

The G20 thus finds itself hampered in the face of multiple, interconnected global crises. Not only are the most pressing threats to global order now driven by geopolitical and ideological contestation, but such antagonism also concurrently impedes efforts to confront the looming existential threat of irreversible, catastrophic climate change. Precisely when the world needs the G20, its hands are tied.

Meanwhile, the G7 has been given a new lease on life, with members rallying together in support for Ukraine and in defence of a rules-based international order. Although less representative, as a tight-knit, like-minded group of allies, the G7 can band together amidst geopolitical upheaval while the G20 atrophies in division and contestation. What many up until recently regarded as an anachronism is suddenly no longer so, and the G20 – an institution heralded as the future of global governance – finds itself hobbled. This is not because either group has changed, but because the world around them has.

A new norm

This moment may prove to be a blip. If so, the G20 could tread water for a while, emerge out the other side, and resume business as normal. There is little to suggest, though, that what we find ourselves in the midst of today is anything but a longer-term trend. The historical outlier was the brief moment of post–Cold War unipolarity in which it was imagined that consensus-based, technocratic global governance could be the new norm.

A re-politicised international domain does not imply the end of multilateral governance. But it does mean that the institutions most likely to be effective in such an environment are those that are decidedly less diverse – less global – than the G20. The return of politics suggests that it is smaller groups of politically aligned states that are more likely to thrive, while those more heterogeneous in composition are more likely to sputter and stall. This is a context ripe for the G7 and perilous for the G20.

The vision of what the G20 can offer the world remains laudable, but the world in which it now finds itself may well be one in which its ambition is utopian. If the world does not soon correct its course, the G20 will need to.