Making Multilateralism Work: How the G-20 Can Help the United Nations

The moves in 2008-09, prompted by the global financial crisis, to convene the G-20 at the level of heads of state constituted the first major adaptation of global arrangements to better fit with the fact of the emerging powers. Clearly it will not be the last. G-20 negotiations have already given a critical impetus to governance reforms at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and The World Bank.

Predictably, if somewhat ironically, the expansion of the G-8 to include a wider range of countries including from the “Global South” drew angry cries of exclusion, illegitimacy, and preemption at the United Nations. Early G-20 decisions also provoked a new bout of tensions between the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the international financial institutions.

Criticisms of the G-20 from within the UN focus on its illegitimacy (defined in UN-centric terms) and its potential usurpation of functions formally tasked to UN bodies by the Charter. The fundamental problem with the nascent rivalry between the G-bodies and the UN bodies is an underlying misconception of their comparative advantages and of the potential relationship between them.

Rather than viewing the G-20 as a threatened usurper of the United Nations, this paper takes a different starting point. It regards the universality of the United Nations, apart from certain operational weaknesses, as an enduring political strength of the organization. It also assumes that the G-20 (like the G-8 before it) will have minimal operational or actionable roles and will depend on the formal institutions to implement most, if not all, of its major initiatives. Given their nature, then, there is a necessary relationship between the G-20 and similar bodies and formal, inclusive institutions. An important factor for the G-20/UN relationship, in particular, is the struggle to maintain UN legitimacy and effectiveness, given the world body’s recent overstretch and underperformance, as well as stalled reforms. A better way to think about the relationship between the two entities is to ask if the G-20 helps the United Nations perform and reform.

Taking the idea even further, this paper asks whether the G-20 could play useful roles in broader institutional reform. The contemporary international system confronts a wide range of transnational and global problems. It also has a broad panoply of international and regional institutions—technical, political, and operational—geared to solving these problems. Yet these two realities don’t add up. Gaps, overlaps, incoherence and underperformance are chronic to the world of multilateral institutions. Can the G-20 help drive improved performance?

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