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The G20 in Cannes – greatness in waiting?

By Graham Cooke - posted Friday, 4 November 2011

To misquote Shakespeare, some organisations are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.

The Group of 20 nations that will meet in Cannes in November was hardly born great. It began as a gathering of Foreign Ministers and financial technocrats in a 1999 meeting, with the aim of stabilising global financial markets in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis two years earlier.

By then things were already on the mend and the world was embarking on a period of rapid expansion and wealth creation. The G20 was seen as no more than a steady hand on the tiller - a way of involving the smaller developed and major developing economies in a second tier forum, while the real business continued to be done by the heavyweights of the long-established G7/8.


All that changed with the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, where the older block was seen not as the potential solver of the crisis, rather they were part of the problem. With many observers expecting this to be the Asian Century, the G7/8 had just one Asian nation among its members – the faltering and crisis-ridden Japan. G20 had six Asian members, seven counting Australia, and included two of the rising economic powerhouses, China and India.

Global leaders took a sudden interest in the G20. Meetings became summits, and presidents and Prime Ministers replaced their subordinates for the annual "team" photographs. The G20 had greatness thrust upon it.

But has it really achieved greatness? The report card is mixed. It was transformed into its present state at a time of crisis and its decisions were fast and effective. Members agreed to meet the GFC head on with a concerted program of financial stimulation that was ambitious, innovative and correct, preventing the situation from dragging on into a 1930s-style Great Depression. But while the initial battle may have been won, the outcome of the war is still uncertain.

Leaders have met five times since and while the GFC has been constrained, it has not gone away. We now talk about the EDC (European Debt Crisis) and the threat of a "double dip" in the United States. In the meantime, there has been some good work done on financial regulation and the aims and aspiration of developing countries now carry more weight. But, there are many who say that this is a very moderate outcome from so many high-powered get-togethers.

Conditions still favour a leadership role for the G20. It controls more than 80 per cent of the world's gross domestic product; it is globally representative; it contains advanced developing economies that retain deep roots in the Third World; and it is not subject to the archaic veto system that hamstrings an unreformed United Nations.

The possibility of a flexible, responsive organisation meeting and solving problems through robust debate and eventual consensus is strong. A streamlined 'UN Executive Committee' concentrating on fiscal and economic problems and leaving the Security Council to take care of, as its name implies, international security, would likely be an attractive proposition to a majority of the global community.


While its current moderation has been criticised, there is also a danger of overreach. Writing in the East Asia Forum Quarterly, Canadian academics Barry Carin and Peter Heap wonder why Asian members of the G20 "continue to acquiesce to outdated, ineffective global institutions designed by Westerners more than 50 years ago in very different circumstances."

"Western models and existing institutions have obviously failed across the board. A Martian would conclude that on Earth, the borrowers run the international financial institutions, the polluters manage the environment and the inmates run the asylums," Carin and Heap write.

Challenging words, but hardly ones likely to promote productive debate or solutions that will find acceptance among even a majority of the G20's membership. The pair fails to acknowledge that even given their current woes, Western economies are still of absolutely crucial importance to the global trading structure. The United States remains, for the moment unchallenged as the world's super-economy.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.

He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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