Perspectives on the G-20 Foreign Ministers' Meeting

On February 19-20, the Mexican government hosted the first ever meeting of the G-20’s foreign ministers. This is an important development in the international architecture for managing the evolving relations between the established and the rising powers. We invited scholars and officials from the G-20 nations to write, in their personal capacity, about the meeting, what it should do, and what it portends in global governance and the management of the changing global order.

United States

Bruce Jones
Senior Fellow and Director, Managing Global Order Project at Brookings
Director, Center on International Cooperation, New York University

This weekend, the Mexican government will host a meeting of the G-20’s foreign ministers, in Los Cabos. The meeting has been overshadowed by the drama at the UN Security Council, where the US and its allies have clashed with China and especially Russia over violence in Syria. But the Los Cabos meeting constitutes a step change in the governance of global issues.

The G-20 Summit of leaders itself has played a crucial role since November 2008. First, and vitally, in avoiding a global depression, through it’s coordinated stimulus program and refinancing and remandating of the IMF. Second, since the crunch phase of the global financial crisis, the G-20 has made important headway in laying the groundwork of financial regulation, economic surveillance and oversight to reduce the risks of the next crisis. That is an unfinished business, and the Eurozone crisis highlights continuing challenges. Superficial journalism has highlighted ongoing disputes, or less than dramatic Summit outcomes; but overall, the G-20 is a major success story.

One of the more subtle successes of the G-20 is that it has started to foster the habits of cooperation among a set of countries that have not yet had to develop those habits. The G-7 western allies have forty years of experience of working together, and shared values that bind. The critical insight that President Bush had in his last days in office was that the global financial crisis was a bigger problem than the West alone could handle. A wider group was going to be necessary for the crisis response; and moving ahead, building the infrastructure for cooperation between the established and emerging powers is the necessary condition of managing global order. It’s a historical irony that it was President Bush rather than the more globally minded President Obama that made the decisive moves on the G-20 and the IMF, but the pattern was well set and the Obama administration has deepened the work on both fronts.
Because of the scale of the global financial challenge, G-20 managers resisted early calls – including from this project – to widen the agenda of the G-20. They were right. Had the G-20 diverted focus from its core function of protecting the global financial system and maintaining a stable international economic order, not only would we not now be in an incipient global recovery, relations between the major and the emerging powers would have deteriorated rapidly. A continued concentration on core issues is warranted. Over time, though, the G20’s managers have found some bandwith to begin working together on other issues, from development to fossil fuels subsidies.

What’s left behind is foreign and security policy. There are several issues where the established and emerging powers have differences of view on that agenda – Syria is only the most acute and most obvious of them. But there are a raft of other issues where the major powers have shared interests or, more commonly, where they have a shared interest in avoiding a deep crisis – like in Iran. China may not agree with the U.S. approach on Iran, but they have a fundamental interest in avoiding a deep crisis that closes the Straits of Hormuz – and they warned Iran on this in sharp terms in January 2012. There’s perhaps no more important challenge in global order than beginning to set the pattern of finding areas of common agreement, and working through differences short of crisis, between the major and the rising powers. That will not encompass all issues – there will still be many areas that are simply subject for bilateral relations, or for ongoing dispute. It’s surely in all our interests, though, that that set of issues be as small as possible, and that we build up similar habits of cooperation, or at least habits of deconfliction, where fundamental values aren’t in conflict.

In this regard, the G-20 foreign ministers meeting in Los Cabos represents the first real opportunity we’ve had to begin that work. Yes, the emerging powers have happened to be in the Security Council over the last two years, and China has a permanent seat there. But the Security Council is a tool for crisis management and negotiation, not for forging new habits and not for building confidence. Broader confidence building processes will results in a narrowing of the gap in the Security Council, not the other way around.

Several countries resisted the Mexican initiative, or hesitated in accepting the invitation. Among the first foreign ministers to say yes was US Secretary of State Clinton. The rest quickly followed.

It was the right move. Perhaps not much will come out of the Los Cabos meeting – and the Mexicans have wisely tried to downplay expectations by emphasizing that it’s an “informal meeting”, rather than a Summit. That’s the right move too. A search for formal agreements or communiqués would simply push this back into a space of unproductive negotiations. Far more important is relationship building, building shared perspectives on key security issues, and an informal space for back room negotiations. I suspect that Secretary Clinton will use quite a lot of her time in Los Cabos cornering her Chinese and Russian colleagues on the Syria question – and that’s very much to the good.

So, Felicidades to Mexico on an important initiative. With modest expectations, and some creative leadership, a foreign ministers process for the G-20 can fill an important gap. We may still face a “G-Zero” future of unmanaged problems and centrifugal tensions between the major powers; but we’re not there yet. The Mexican initiative is a step in the right direction.


Brazil

Celso Amorim
Writing in a Personal Capacity

Not too long ago, some months after the Lehman Brothers débacle, I was invited to talk to French and international students at the Science Po in Paris. I was then the Brazilian Foreign Minister. Among other things, I remember having said that the G-8 was dead, a statement that generated a lot of criticism in the media, not least in Brazil. A few months later, the President of the United States, expressed essentially the same view, in softer words. During the Pittsburgh summit, President Obama said that the G-20 had become the main international forum for economic matters. And a process of change, still incomplete for sure, took place in formal financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. Today, after a succession of crises in Europe, no one with a minimum knowledge in international economics would dare contradict that view. Indeed, how can world economic problems be solved without the participation of the BRIC countries? As a consequence the world governance in financial and economic affairs was drastically reformed in a period of not more than two or three years.

Nothing remotely similar to these momentous changes happened in the field of peace and security. After two decades of intense and often tedious discussions in the UN, the Security Council remains exactly with the same format designed sixty years ago in San Francisco. Given its lack of representativeness and legitimacy, it is no wonder that the Council cannot deal appropriately with such important subjects as the several dimensions of the so called Arab Awakening,or, more pointedly, with burning issues such as the Iranian Nuclear Program, not to speak of a more structural response to the problems of Africa. One of the reasons that made the changes in the governance of international economic affairs possible was the relative informality of fora such as the G-7/G-8 as well as the more flexible procedures for reform in the international financial institutions (in contrast with the ultra-rigid requirements for reforming the UN Charter).Without exaggerating the scope of the changes that may begin with the February meeting of Foreign Ministers in Mexico, one is allowed to hope that it can at least initiate a process which someday will impact on the more formal institutions that deal with political and security matters. In order that such a process may take place, it essential that the FM meeting focuses on concrete questions - such as the ones mentioned here - and does not lose much time and energy on more abstract issues of institutional nature. Nor should it bother too much with other subjects - important as they may be - which have already found an appropriate locus for debate, such as climate change. In other words, for a political G-20 to become a relevant forum it must not develop a theory about walking. Like the Greek philosopher who rebutted the sophistic argument on the logic impossibility of movement, it must simply walk.


China

Shen Dingli
Professor of International Relations, Director of the Center for American Studies, and Executive Vice Dean of the Institute of International Affairs, Fudan University, Shanghai

The G-20 emerged from global financial crisis in 2008 to bail out the market as an informal ad hoc grouping. Thus far it still has utility as the debt of both the United States and eurozone has to be cut and global trade rebalanced. This type of global governance entails new institutions such as the G-20 to play a constructive role which the UNSC and G-8 could not play effectively.

The Summit meeting and Financial Ministerial Level meeting of the G-20 addresses present economic and financial dimensions but to better institutionalize the G-20 has to structure more formally and tackle broader international affairs. Bringing international political and security affairs to the G-20 agenda could empower G-20 in a structural way.

The upcoming G-20 Foreign Ministers’ informal meeting from February 18-20 in Mexico renders such an opportunity for the most influential established powers and most important emerging nations to timely address issues of common interest beyond global economic recovery and rebalancing. The foreign ministers could plausibly set a new paradigm of the organization and offer a chance of consensus on crucial issues.

Syria and Iran are two such crucial matters that the Foreign Ministers’ meeting will find it hard to ignore. As the G-20 is not the G-8, it gives more authoritativeness and representativeness of the world powers to approach to the two crises in a balanced manner. Also, as the G-20 is not the UNSC, which has to make critical decision when needed, it tends to allow sufficient deliberation without splitting the organization. Rather, it permits more time for consensus building before the UNSC would vote on Syrian, and Iranian, cases. Established powers would have more chances to hear the common voices of Russia, China and India while the emerging powers could also debate among themselves, which is more ideal than the UNSC itself.

Ambassador Wu Jianmin
Professor of International Studies, China Foreign Affairs University
Chairman, Shanghai Centre of International Studies

The G-20 is a reflection of the profound changes underway in world affairs. These changes are far from over. As a new group on the international arena, the G-20 is still evolving. The informal meeting of the G-20 foreign ministers, to be held on February 18-20 in Mexico, is a natural development of its evolution, since economics, politics and security are all interrelated.

The very existence of the G-20 is closely tied to financial crises. The G-20 was set up in 1999 in the aftermath of Asia Financial Crisis. The G-20 summit was born in 2008 out of the current financial crisis. In the Chinese language, crisis consists of two characters: danger and opportunity. Indeed, the mankind advances from crisis to crisis.

The performance of the G-20, since 2008, proves to be positive. Some believe that the “heroic phase” of the G-20 is over. I disagree. The evolution of the G-20 is a long process. We have to judge it in a comprehensive way. Thanks to the G-20, the current financial crisis didn’t turn into a great depression. This is a remarkable achievement. We all know the current crisis is deepening. This is a global problem. A global problem requires global solution. A global solution requires international cooperation.

The composition of the G-20 is not homogeneous. Among the G-20 countries, the situation varies from one to another. They have different political systems, different cultures, different histories and they are in different stages of development. It is quite natural that they have divergence of views. To advance the G-20’s work, one has to focus on shared interests. This is the key to success. On the basis of shared interests, G-20 can build up consensus, which leads to action. It was true of G-20 summit in the past. It will also be true of the forthcoming informal meeting of the G-20 foreign ministers.  


Australia

Michael Fullilove
Director, Global Issues Program, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Sydney, Australia
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution

Australia is a wealthy nation with a small population occupying a large continent located a great distance from our historical sources of security and prosperity. As a result, all Australian governments have been concerned to join (and, if necessary, erect and strengthen) institutions through which they can influence global decisions and touch the global flows of power – including the United Nations, alliance institutions and APEC.

Australia’s foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, served as prime minister during the global financial crisis and was one of the forces behind the designation of the G-20 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation.

As one of the progenitors of the G-20, Australia is keen to see the institution develop and strengthen further. Last year saw the first meeting of G20 finance and development ministers; now G-20 foreign ministers are convening for the first time. For Canberra, the fact of the meeting itself is important: it shows the stitching together of the group.

Foreign ministers will assemble in Los Cabos at a time of great stress and concern about the global economy. Growth prospects are down; Europe’s financial problems are affecting other national economies; capital flows to developing countries have withered. Foreign ministers are particularly well-placed to engage on the human and social costs of the global crisis.

Australians are a practical people. The government wants a good discussion on the meeting’s agenda items, including global governance, green growth and human development. More importantly, though, Canberra hopes for some sharp, clear positions.

Food security is an area demanding extra action, including the implementation of pre-existing commitments as well as addressing the long-term trends. The Australian government would like to explore innovative ways of leveraging private-sector funds for development. It also looks for recommendations on dealing with youth unemployment that can be put to G-20 leaders later in the year.

We don’t know how the G-20 will develop in the future. The best way to preserve its position is to make every post a winner – including this first meeting of foreign ministers.

Spain

Giovanni Grevi
Senior Researcher, Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE), Madrid

The first informal meeting of G-20 Foreign Ministers in Mexico should be welcomed for three reasons. First, the G-20 is a process promoting shared responsibility. As such, it should afford some flexibility to tackle important issues related to its core economic agenda. This has been the case, for example, with development and food security. Second, while foreign policy issues can prove divisive, disagreements are not cast in stone but are subject to evolving assessments and perceptions. Those are the two levels at which informal meetings in the G-20 context can make a difference over time. Third, informally discussing foreign policy issues within the G-20 process would help underpin the authority of the UN Security Council. The G-20 could perform as an important platform for confidence building or de-confliction, paving the way for debates at the UNSC level, where decisions belong.

That said, given the different sensitivities of G-20 members on addressing foreign policy in the G-20 context, this should be done in a prudent and incremental way. It will be up to G-20 leaders to decide whether any item discussed by Foreign Ministers will climb up to summit level. Two criteria should guide this decision, namely a clear chance of successful agreement and a clear link between political, security and economic concerns. In short, added value. The agenda put forward by the Mexican Presidency may benefit from a more targeted approach to common transnational challenges and vulnerabilities. Relevant issues could include so-called flow security (keeping material and virtual commons such as the cyberspace safe and open); resource governance; the security implications of climate change in specific regions; and countering illegal trafficking of drugs and people. Foreign Ministers could address controversial geopolitical issues more comfortably in ad hoc side-meetings than in plenary debates.

The G-20 will thrive or wither away based on its capacity to cope with the permutations of the financial and economic crisis. But it would be delusional to think that focusing on economics while cross-border risks spread and geopolitical crises fester will preserve the prosperity of G-20 members. The G-20 need not shift its core focus. Likewise, it should not compete with other bodies. But to the extent that it can help coping with shared political challenges threatening economic security, it should.


South Korea

Dong Hwi Lee
Professor, Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security (IFANS), Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, South Korea

A G-20 foreign ministers' meeting will be convened for the first time in Mexico, where the next G-20 summit will be held, during February 19-20, 2012. It is an encouraging development, for it improves the prospects for the G-20 process to evolve into a truly premium forum as global governance undergoes significant changes.

Foreign ministers' talks are expected to make three key contributions to upgrading the G2-0.

First, the G-20 foreign ministers' talks can provide a venue for addressing so-called "hybrid issues," for example energy and climate change, which characterize international relations in the 21st century, and to which both economy and security are inextricably linked. By tackling such issues, the G-20 can continue to broaden its scope of agenda and thereby cement its raison d'etre.

Second, the foreign ministers' talks can function as a forum for the world's major economies to effectively respond to the political uncertainty that may very well result from global economic instability. The G-7 is a case in point. It started out as an economic forum, but ultimately G-7 foreign ministers' meetings offered a useful safety net as the world struggled to overcome the political fallout from the collapse of the Cold War structure. The advantages of G-20 foreign ministers' meeting will only be redoubled this year, for a series of leadership transitions around the world will fuel uncertainties, let alone the turbulence already apparent in the Middle East.

Third, if the foreign ministers' talks do evolve into one of the systemic pillars of the G-20 process, the meetings will serve as an essential mechanism for efficiently innovating the G-20 process. The larger membership compared to the G-8, disparate cultural backgrounds among member states, and demand for record- keeping/evaluation are some of the many practical needs that need to be met, resulting in calls for further expanding secretarial function in the future. All in all, the G-20 foreign ministers' meetings will be significant on their own merit. More importantly, they will play a significant role in advancing institutionalization of the G-20.


Argentina

Rut Diamint
Professor, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, Buenos Aires
Researcher, National Council of Scientific and Technologic Research (CONICET)

The emergence of the G-20 forged expectations of a possible democratization of the international order. Several elements came together to strengthen that illusion. First, there was evidence that the G-8 was no longer able to determine the rules of the international system. Second, there was widely spread and harsh criticism directed toward the legitimacy of the United Nations Security Council. The third was the emergence of middle powers with prospects of sustained growth and respect for international norms and values. The fourth was a national and global civil society more involved in the claim for national and universal standards of justice. The fifth was the emblematic supremacy of human rights laws. The final element was a recognition that major blunders, such as a financial meltdown, are not exclusively committed by developing nations.

In this context the G-20 was supposed to open a more inclusive and egalitarian dialogue. Unfortunately, the G-20 did not achieve convincing efforts towards global security. It is true that we could argue that behind the notion of global governance supported by the G-20 meetings is the paradigm of peace and a peaceful conflict resolution. But, when talking about specific proposals, security is too tied to economic interests. Encouraging protective measures to prevent colossal disasters, like the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, or condemning all forms of terrorism are, without a doubt, valuable initiatives but they also may be seen as mere rhetorical and bombastic announcements. The scope of the dialogue changed, but the logic is still the same—a realist one extremely related to the balance of power.

The expectation of an egalitarian and pluralistic G-20, representing a greater diversity, and at the same time restricted to the most powerful international actors from the perspective that they will assume greater responsibility for stabilizing the world and assist especially needy countries, but without the typical vices of the specialized bureaucracies of most of the multilateral agencies, is regrettably absent.

The reform of financial institutions that ignores the crucial importance of developing a comprehensive program of stability and security has no future. It is time to attach to G-20 cooperation policy, specific clauses that clearly induce to the respect for human rights, the elimination of double standards, and the
compliance with international agreements. Undeniably, the vocation of being more global and plural leads to the establishment of commonly accepted standards of conduct in the international security field. There is not global economic governance without global security.


India

WPS Sidhu
Senior Fellow, Center for International Cooperation, New York University

Like the G-7/G-8, which began life as a purely economic club of the world’s biggest economies, the G-20 too is evolving from an ad-hoc gathering of select nations to fix the world’s financial and economic woes into an institution concerned with international peace and security. The first ever meeting of G-20 foreign ministers in Los Cabos, Mexico this weekend marks this crucial transition.

This shift could not have come at a more appropriate time. With post-Gaddafi Libya in disarray, the bitter dust-up over Syria in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), and the looming war clouds over Iran, there is an urgent need for a forum like the G-20 to try and carve out a common, cooperative approach on all these issues amongst its members.

But is it, perhaps, too optimistic to assume that the G-20 will succeed where other forums have failed? Yes and no.

It is certainly optimistic to assume that a single meeting, even in the tranquil setting of Los Cabos, will be able to overcome the deep divisions between the established powers and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in particular. Nonetheless, the G-20 meeting does offer a useful venue to try and bridge these differences and would be an opportunity for the established and reemerging powers to engage at two levels: strategic and tactical.

At the strategic level the G-20 members could try and explore normative areas of convergence, especially over the concepts of responsibility to protect, given that there was a broad support for the principle (as apparent in UNSC resolutions 1970 and 1973) but serious disagreement on how it should be implemented.

In addition, the group could also consider the Brazilian idea of “responsibility while protecting” which needs to be further elaborated outside of the charged atmosphere of the UNSC setting. Moreover, there is also need to explore the responsibility for post-conflict reconstruction. As the Libyan case has amply demonstrated, a successful (albeit prolonged) military campaign and regime change alone does not guarantee greater security or better governance for the populace.

Against the backdrop of these broader normative debates, which are likely to continue beyond Los Cabos, there are several tactical issues that require urgent attention. Syria is prominent among them.

Given that there now appears to be overwhelming (if not unanimous) support for a political transition in Syria could a common agenda be worked out within the G-20 framework, especially one that takes on board the Russian and Chinese sensitivities as well as lessons from the Libyan experience? If such an understanding could be reached in Los Cabos, it could contribute to a more cooperative approach among the key powers in the UNSC.

Here, it is worth remembering that it was a similar G-8 meeting in Berlin in June 1999 that helped to resolve the tensions, particularly between Russia and the United States, over the bombing of Kosovo and paved the way for the consensus UNSC resolution 1244 and post-conflict reconstruction. While it could be argued that a G-8 consensus was easier, given the smaller membership, if the G-20 were to achieve a similar breakthrough, it would carry greater conviction given the more representative and diverse nature of the bigger group. The more representative nature of the G-20 would be an important asset in dealing with the gathering storm over Iran.

Finally, given the present stalemate over the UNSC reform process and assuming that this is first of regular G-20 foreign ministers meetings, this forum would be the only venue where the permanent members of the UNSC and the aspirant members, notably Brazil, India and South Africa would be able to interact on a regular basis on international peace and security issues.