Both the G7 and the G20 summit platforms arose from responses to economic and financial challenges. As a result, finance ministers have a dominant role in both the discussion and the discourse among leaders of the major economies. The Covid-19 crisis has broadened the agenda of both groups of leading countries, along with urgency of climate change and the imperative of dealing with systemic social inequalities revealed by the pandemic.
The Italian G20 summit in Rome at the end of October becomes a significant opportunity to re-energize the G20 as a leadership forum to strengthen its capacity to mobilize ambition to achieve results and manage the global commons in an inclusive manner.
But new dynamics within the G7 - and their spillover effects on the G20 - threaten the prospects for accelerating systemic transformation to meet systemic threats.
The problem is that the nature of politics within the G7 to accentuate like-mindedness and commitments to democratic values runs counter to the inclusive nature of the G20. The G20 contains six Asian countries against the only one in the G7, four Muslim countries instead of none in the G7, and a diverse set of countries from Latin America to Africa to Asia, as opposed to focusing on the trans-Atlantic alliance members.
The result of this increasing emphasis on values and like-mindedness, the West is creating a polarization between the Western and non-Western world. This binary polarization is intruding into the G20, which otherwise had been an inclusive forum which did not insist on regime characteristics given that some countries which are indisputably important are not democracies. China being the most obvious and most crucial example.
What is necessary is that the G7 discuss internally whatever it wishes instead of using its meetings to drive unity within the West by mounting campaigns that drive wedges with China. As German Chancellor Merkel said at the Berlin Global Solutions Summit on May 28th: “without China we can’t do much” followed by Italian prime minister Mario Draghi saying: “it is not a question of whether to work with China but of how”.
Given this fact of life, it seems essential for the G7 to create a political climate in which democracy and human rights can be defended and advanced without exacerbating geopolitical tensions between China and the West.
The challenge for the G20 this year is to come up with a political narrative that relates systemic challenges to responses which connects with people in meaningful ways. The social cohesion agenda is crucial in conveying an answer to populations who have suffered from the pandemic, its economic impact and its revelation of systemic divides and inequalities. The G20 political narrative in 2021 needs to create a crucial pivot from a history of prioritizing economic and financial issues to embracing a broader holistic agenda that includes social and planetary issues and that commits the world to a more intensive effort to achieve ambitious inter-related goals.
This shift must be undertaken now, in 2021, when the drama of the last year is fresh and the pain is still acute. Waiting to pivot will likely mean no pivot at all.
There needs to be a stronger culture of reciprocity, respect and responsibility in global governance which enables both honesty and frankness about differences and convergence on substantive solutions. The heralded “ganging-up” language of the G7 as a like-minded group favoring democracy injects ideological conflict into the global discourse, polarizing conversations about other issues which need to be negotiated in a professional manner.
The looming global debate between “democracy vs autocracy” will dichotomize the global conversation into false binary choices. Instead, governance debates should focus on effectiveness and delivery. They need to be substantive and knowledge-based rather than polemical. The West is backing itself into a corner with fewer and fewer partners whilst pushing other countries into opposite corners, even though everyone wants to be in a more open space in the middle where common ground is greater and, therefore, possible.
No one needs to stand down on their value commitments, but rather realize that they make poor foundations for negotiations among diverse powers in global affairs and limit the prospect of global solutions, which are increasingly urgent. Making points with domestic audiences on value-laden issues in the global arena, whether by so-called autocracies or democracies, has a high cost in limiting the degree of cooperation and mutual understanding necessary for achieving systemic sustainability for the planet and for people in the 2020s. Both China and the West need to see the G20 platform as an opportunity to manage global geopolitical tensions in order to be able to mobilize convergence on critical systemic challenges. Other G20 countries have huge stakes in the outcome and need to facilitate these efforts.