Does the G-20 need bureaucrats?

I attended a conference at the end of last week on the G-20 and its future prospects, organized by the Stanley Foundation. With the Seoul summit just a few weeks away, there was a surprising amount of uncertainty among the gathered diplomats and experts about the G-20’s place in the world political architecture. Given the ...

I attended a conference at the end of last week on the G-20 and its future prospects, organized by the Stanley Foundation. With the Seoul summit just a few weeks away, there was a surprising amount of uncertainty among the gathered diplomats and experts about the G-20's place in the world political architecture. Given the plaudits the group received for coordinating a response to the financial crisis and the broad enthusiasm that has greeted the G-20's emergence, the sober tone was striking.

The currency controversy accounted for some of the nervousness. South Korea is clearly petrified that the issue will suck up the oxygen at the meeting and potentially wreck a summit that it has spent months preparing. But there was also concern that the body's agenda has been overstuffed with issues the gathered leaders can't possibly resolve. There was also a feeling that the United States -- until recently a champion of the new group -- has soured somewhat on the G-20, and may even be a bit nostalgic for the days when the more manageable G-8 was the preeminent forum. Calling for more representative international structures is easy enough in the abstract; the messy reality can turn even committed progressives into defenders of selectivity. 

One theme that kept popping up was whether the G-20 needed some additional structure in order to more effectively transition from crisis committee to capable international steering group. Both South Korea and France have hinted at the possibility of an international secretariat that could help organize summits and monitor compliance with commitments  made during meetings. But it's clear that such a step would meet resistance from already skeptical non-G-20 countries, as well as established international organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF, which are nervous about being marginalized by the elite club. And for those who see informality as a principal attribute of the various G-groupings, the idea of bureaucratizing the process seems to defeat the original purpose.

I attended a conference at the end of last week on the G-20 and its future prospects, organized by the Stanley Foundation. With the Seoul summit just a few weeks away, there was a surprising amount of uncertainty among the gathered diplomats and experts about the G-20’s place in the world political architecture. Given the plaudits the group received for coordinating a response to the financial crisis and the broad enthusiasm that has greeted the G-20’s emergence, the sober tone was striking.

The currency controversy accounted for some of the nervousness. South Korea is clearly petrified that the issue will suck up the oxygen at the meeting and potentially wreck a summit that it has spent months preparing. But there was also concern that the body’s agenda has been overstuffed with issues the gathered leaders can’t possibly resolve. There was also a feeling that the United States — until recently a champion of the new group — has soured somewhat on the G-20, and may even be a bit nostalgic for the days when the more manageable G-8 was the preeminent forum. Calling for more representative international structures is easy enough in the abstract; the messy reality can turn even committed progressives into defenders of selectivity. 

One theme that kept popping up was whether the G-20 needed some additional structure in order to more effectively transition from crisis committee to capable international steering group. Both South Korea and France have hinted at the possibility of an international secretariat that could help organize summits and monitor compliance with commitments  made during meetings. But it’s clear that such a step would meet resistance from already skeptical non-G-20 countries, as well as established international organizations like the United Nations, the World Bank, and the IMF, which are nervous about being marginalized by the elite club. And for those who see informality as a principal attribute of the various G-groupings, the idea of bureaucratizing the process seems to defeat the original purpose.

David Bosco is an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of books on the U.N. Security Council and the International Criminal Court, and is at work on a new book about governance of the oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist

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