New Threats Demand a New Global Security Forum

When the G-20’s leaders first met in Washington, D.C. in November 2008, they were bound together by a single crisis. The economic meltdown helped them forget recent distractions such as the Russo-Georgian war and Kosovo’s declaration of independence.

At next week’s G-20 summit in Seoul, the participants will have multiple competing issues on their minds—and even the threat of a currency war may not get them to focus:

  • When Prime Minister Naoto Kan of Japan meets Presidents Hu Jintao and Dmitry Medvedev of China and Russia, he’ll surely think about their recent territorial disputes. 
  • European participants like David Cameron and Angela Merkel may want to corner President Obama to find out where the administration’s Afghan policy review is going.
  • Outgoing Brazilian leader Inácio Lula da Silva will probably be smarting over Obama’s widely-predicted decision to support India’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council—while ignoring Brazil’s claim to the same thing.  But none of these issues will be on the G-20 agenda.

This is a pity. If the G-20 continues to exclude diplomatic and security issue like these, the leaders who attend it may conclude that it doesn’t reflect their hard political priorities.

Over the last two years, G-20 members have focused narrowly on economic and financial affairs. In Seoul, the South Korean hosts will push the envelope a little by raising development issues, but security concerns are taboo. When the U.K. proposed an informal side meeting on Security Council reform at last year’s G-20 summit, the U.S. ruled it out.

There is a good pragmatic argument for this. If the G-20 had tried to take up non-economic issues at the height of the crisis, it would have dragged it away it away from its urgent financial business. And some members, including China and Brazil, are deeply skeptical of any moves to shift talks about security issues outside the U.N. framework.

It may sound pleasingly neat to say that the G-20 should handle economics while the U.N. manages security cooperation. But there are three problems with this argument.

The first is that the Security Council—designed to react to straightforward threats like wars and coups—is ill-equipped to talk about complex transnational threats like organized crime and pandemic disease. When Britain convened a Security Council meeting on the security implications of climate change a few years ago, it went nowhere.

Secondly, there are many issues that are genuinely both economic and security concerns. It is impossible to disentangle violence in a country like Sudan from its energy supplies, or the blood-letting in the Democratic Republic of Congo from its mineral reserves.

The Security Council can mitigate the symptoms of violence in these cases by send envoys and peacekeepers, but it can’t address the economic drivers of conflict in them.

Finally, it’s foolish to imagine that international leaders can keep economic and security concerns separate in their minds. If, for example, the U.S. and China were to fall out over how to handle Iran in 2011 or 2012, it would inevitably affect the mood in the G-20.

For these reasons, there’s a need for a mechanism to let big powers discuss about their overlapping security and economic interests, rather than keeping them artificially apart.

By coincidence, this problem may be held at bay for a year or two as an unusual number of G-20 members will be on the Security Council in the next couple of years—including not only the U.S., France, Britain, Russia and China but also Brazil, India, Germany and South Africa. This may allow the big powers to coordinate their economic and security interests in a marginally more rational fashion than usual. But it’s only a short-term fix.

Reforming the Security Council to include more of the emerging powers on a permanent basis, if managed skillfully, could stimulate them to coordinate their interests more consistently. But that will require painful diplomacy plus domestic ratifications of the changes by two-thirds of the U.N.’s 192 members—making Council reform the diametrical opposite of a short-term fix.

What is needed in the interim is some sort of informal leaders’ forum that would allow big powers to discuss international security problems in a pragmatic fashion—without putting them in the spotlight at the Security Council. This forum would not be an alternative to the Council, especially in terms of authorizing sanctions or the use of force.

But it would permit presidents and prime ministers to explore issues—like managing the security dimensions of energy supplies—that the Council can’t handle properly anyway.

It would help the established powers and the emerging powers identify common interests in issues like transnational threats. And it could be used to defuse tensions before they get to the level where the Security Council would have to take action.

A lighter alternative would be a G-20 foreign ministers forum. Even an informal gathering of G-20 foreign ministers or national security advisors would help.

This may sound like a useful by unfeasible model for international cooperation. But three years ago, the idea that the G-20 would be a serious venue for leaders’ discussions also seemed improbable. So some sort of G-20-based security forum is not unthinkable.

Maybe all the distracted leaders in Seoul should spend a bit of time thinking about it.     

This article draws on arguments presented at a Managing Global Insecurity seminar co-hosted with the Government of Denmark in Copenhagen on October 26-27, 2010. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.