As no preview of tomorrow’s mega-summit ever fails to remind us, the G20 accounts for two-thirds of the world’s population (not to mention even huger percentages of its economic output and trade) yet far tinier groups are perfectly capable of stealing the show in the form of violent protests, as repeatedly demonstrated at previous conclaves – and now reflected again here with anticipatory security issues unduly dominating the build-up. As against the five billion or so people inhabiting the G20 members, we are talking about hundreds rather than thousands of extremists – thus at last year’s Hamburg summit, only around 8,000 of the 100,000 demonstrators were even listed as security risks and only a fraction of those engaged in violence. Their counter-argument might be that even a few hundred is more than a couple of dozen leaders arrogating the right to decide the world’s future – or more than the eight men who hold the same wealth as the poorer half of the world according to Oxfam.
Easy enough to understand why the protests should distract most media since they are so much more colourful than (mostly) men in suits discussing abstract themes beyond day-to-day problems behind closed doors yet because they are so visual they correspond to television rather than print media like ourselves – we thus propose to focus here on the substance of the summit beyond the protests or the traffic hassles. Not that we would ever say that there is nothing to protest – even for those rejecting the anti-globalisation arguments (or at least able to see gains alongside the problems). And not just the extreme social inequalities either. This summit faces a very serious problem in the area of basic human rights – the very presence of Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, strongly suspected of having killed a journalist at the Saudi consulate in a G20 colleague.
The obvious starting-point for any analysis of this heavyweight bloc would be “What is the G20?” but perhaps this is best answered by asking instead: “Who are the G20?” Very much a product of this century (only starting as a huddle of finance ministers in 1999), the G20 has to be considered an improvement on its two chief equivalents in the second half of the 20th century, the G7 and the United Nations – offering a broader global spectrum than the former and more agile than the latter with almost 200 UN members. All continents are represented – five from the Americas, five European, two Eurasians, six Asians and one each from the remaining two continents (Africa and Oceania). The entire G7 and all five BRICS are included while the other members mostly add extra weight to Asia and Latin America. The G20 is often described as the world’s top 20 economies but this is a slight simplification – the European Union might indirectly represent Spain and the Netherlands (both of whose premiers have been invited) but not Switzerland. Rather than just the top of the heap, the G20 offers a mix of the old G7 leaders (like the United States, Germany or Japan), emerging giants such as China or India and various middleweights – most of them grouped together for the last five years in MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia), a quintet only omitting controversial Saudi Arabia and current hosts Argentina. But the latter has a magnificent opportunity this week to interact with established and emerging powers
A diversity which inevitably leads to differences with trade and climate change occupying pride of place but which also simultaneously multiplies and dilutes them. The binary thinking so dominant in this country’s recent politics (but also present in various other G20 members, not least the US) has no place here. Neither should any reductionism limit the problems over trade and climate change to Sino-American and US-EU clashes respectively nor are these the only differences out there. Space would not permit any more complete list but suffice it to say that this summit is testimony to the acceptance of so many differences and the willingness to talk rather than fight them out, even if consensus is more elusive.
Indeed any attempt to project this country’s binary thinking to the G20 would not even work for most leaders in a multipolar world where the boundaries between right and left are becoming harder to discern, never mind the agenda. The top leaders gathering here tomorrow almost three decades after the end of the Cold War are largely a bunch of hybrids. Just to give a few examples, we could cite the blends of religious fundamentalism and economic pragmatism in both India and Turkey, Communist China’s single-party rule and economic dynamism, the French president’s unique image as an establishment outsider and Italy’s ruling coalition of two parties defined by their enemies at least as semi-anarchist and fascist. Not to mention the host, President Mauricio Macri – equally capable of business-friendly policies to woo the International Monetary Fund and legislation to empower shantytowns.
The G20 host country can never be ignored (least of all by an Argentine newspaper like ourselves) but its role should be approached with humility as much as pride. Argentina is not one of the world’s top 20 economies at the best of times (kicking off this year in 21st place with an overvalued currency but at the peak of devaluation falling as low as 36th in dollar terms at least) while its stunted trade volume is rock-bottom within this élite grouping – barely 20 percent of the average of the MIKTA middleweights, never mind the multi-trillion traders like China, the US and Germany. Yet this weakness is also strength – threatening nobody in a tense world, Argentina offers the soft power of an honest broker, working to make rules, not break them (in contrast to Macri’s most powerful guest).
A dose of humility also would not go amiss in setting Argentina’s objectives. Even an honest broker is unlikely to achieve more progress towards resolving the US-China commercial dispute than at September’s Mar del Plata summit of trade ministers, which produced a vague but unanimous commitment to World Trade Organisation reform – this modest advance has to be measured against the total lack of consensus at both the G7 and APEC summits this month. Bigger ambitions such as a substantial EU-Mercosur agreement or Argentine OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) entry need to be placed in this perspective. Any G20 summit looks to the future almost more than the past or present and here Argentina’s three main priorities seem well-chosen. The future of employment and retraining to meet the robot challenge is a continuation of the Hamburg summit; infrastructure forms a core part of the Macri domestic agenda (especially when not in crisis); sustainable development with a special focus on agriculture is playing to Argentina’s strengths.
An unprecedented concentration of top world leaders presents risks and opportunities alike. For some it will be the big picture of the world’s future, for others an irritating delay in the home delivery of their next meal and for others still a matter of complete indifference but we prefer to take a more positive view and insist – there should be no protest without proposals.