Seven New Laws of the G-20 Era

Our complex world calls for a complex -- even messy -- debate. That's a good thing.

Victor Fraile/Getty Images
Victor Fraile/Getty Images

We live in complicated, fast-moving times. And diplomats are struggling to keep up with the pace of events. Nowhere is this clearer than when it comes to the G-20 group of countries, one of the most misunderstood — yet most important — organizations in modern international affairs.

The G-20 group, first formed by finance ministers in the 1990s to deal with the Asian financial crisis, has today become the benchmark for international diplomacy. In November 2008, in the midst of the financial crisis, the G-20 heads of state convened for the first time, bringing together the presidents of 10 industrial powers (Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the European Union) and ten emerging powers (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey). G-20 Summits have occurred five times since then, including meeting in Washington, London, Pittsburgh, Toronto, and Seoul.

If we get it right, the G-20 can serve as a powerful mechanism for managing conflicts and disputes in a new world order. Washington can still lead, even as emerging powers rise. Here are my seven rules for understanding what the G-20 is, and making the most of its capability for diplomacy in the world today.

1. Visible disagreements can have positive side effects

Some commentators have argued that, because the G-20 reveals differences and divisions, the group itself must be a failure. Yet gone are the days when we could categorize a summit as a success or a failure based on the outcome document. Dichotomous thinking doesn’t really work anymore. So if G-20 meetings display more tension than consensus, that might actually be a good thing. In its discord, the G-20 merely reflects the landscape of this dynamic 21st century. There is order and disorder in our world today, competition and coordination, conflict and consensus — all going on at the same time. The G-20 is flushing those issues up not only for leaders to deal with but for publics to deal with as well. Unlike the G-8, the G-20 is creating stronger linkages between leaders and publics, because — not in spite of — the fact that the conflicts are visible.

2. The world won’t conform to Western ideals; diversity is a good thing

Compared with its predecessor, the G-8, the G-20 is a diverse group. The world is also very diverse — and this realization has shattered a favorite conventional wisdom of the last century: that Western civilization was a universal construct to which the rest of the world would eventually conform. In the current moment, the East and the West are meeting for the first time in a really deep and meaningful way. Our societies, cultures, and media are interacting. We’re becoming aware that there are both great differences and common interests between us. And even more pointedly, we are becoming aware that the East is not going to become like the West. Our interactions just might help enhance our understandings of the contribution cultural differences can make to our societies, both in the West and the East. Different configurations of community and individualism, for example, provide more diverse experiences to guide policy.

3. Get used to rising-power pushback

As rising powers rise, they will have opinions — and they will assert them. We have to be ready for this pushback. Brazil, for example, has opposed strengthening sanctions on Iran that the United States government certainly would have preferred Brasilia to support. Just get used to it, and don’t assume that in disagreements there is always a message meant for the United States. The message may be meant for Iran or for Brazil’s own public. What’s important for publics in G-20 countries and elsewhere to understand is that pushback is all a part of the new game.

4. Encourage assertiveness

It’s in America’s interest to have strong, assertive partners that are clear about their perspectives and their interests. We need to build long-term relationships based on mutual understanding and trust. So it’s far healthier for policy conflicts to surface rather than fester below the surface.

Moreover, for some powers, reticence on policy questions may actually be a signal of broader skepticism of the G-20 itself. This is the case for India in particular. Having spoken to some leading Indian officials and thinkers, it’s clear to me that New Delhi is making a calculation about whether the G-20 is for real or not — whether they can trust the behavior of the West within it or and whether it may be a facade not only for the G-8 but for the G-2 of the United States and China. I tell my Indian colleagues: You are hanging back because you’re waiting to see how this is going to play out — but why don’t you try to shape events yourselves? Why don’t you put some skin in the game? Hanging back can generate precisely the outcome skeptical countries want to avoid.

5. Empower the middle powers

The G-20 includes several middle-power countries that could step forward and play larger leadership roles than they do now. Take Canada, for example, a country that has played a strong role in multilateralism over the last 50 years. Australia also plays a tremendously multilateral role in the IMF and in the World Bank, for example, being one of the leaders of governance reform to enhance the role of rising powers. Or look at the way South Korea managed preparations for the Seoul G-20 summit last November; they did an incredible job of respecting and incorporating diverse perspectives into the attendance, meeting agenda, and overall summit set-up. Middle powers have more maneuvering room and trust than so called "great powers," which are more suspect for their more complicated geopolitical agendas. Even outside the G-20, several other countries, such as Chile, Norway, and the Netherlands, have been helpful in everything from the political transition to democracy in the Middle East to climate change to economic development.

6. Mangage domestic policy spill-overs into international affairs

All politics may be local, but decisions made within one country often have great consequences beyond its borders. One example was the decision last fall by the U.S. Federal Reserve to engage in "quantitative easing" — increasing the money supply to stimulate greater credit expansion in United States. The Fed, as it often does, was thinking largely in domestic terms, which was a mistake. The timing of the Fed decision in early November ignored the fact that a G-20 summit was happening the next week in Seoul. As a result, China accused the United States of deliberately depreciating the dollar, making it difficult to get consensus at the Korea G-20 Summit on the need for Beijing to stop manipulating its own currency — a dispute that added to the summit discord.

7. Engage different partners for different issues

Back in the Cold War, the United States had only a limited set of options when it came to building political coalitions. U.S. allies on military affairs were also America’s partners on economic and political issues. This doesn’t have to be the case any longer. Today, the United States has the opportunity to embrace shifting coalitions of consensus depending on what the issue is. The subgroup of G-20 countries favoring stronger financial regulation may differ from a separate coalition pushing for action on climate change — different still from a group of countries calling for expansionary economic policies. A multipolar world may be fluid and chaotic, but it also gives the United States greater maneuvering room — precisely because the country is still a leader in so many domains.

In this new multilateral age, the United States is not doomed to become less of an influential power than it is today. America just needs to learn to play the global game differently.

Colin Bradford is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada