G20 OR G-NOWHERE?

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Other countries host the G20 as a closed-door confabulation of leaders, wrapped up in a cocoon of water-tight security lest the usual legions of protesters outside spoil the party. South Korea has treated the latest Seoul meeting of the G20 as a coming-out party of sorts to showcase its own journey from poor East Asian basketcase to a member of the rich-countries club in just four decades.

South Korean officials have said on record that in terms of projecting South Korea’s global reputation, they saw this summit meeting as a mega-event bigger than the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 2002 soccer World Cup they co-hosted with Japan.

So TV advertisements in Seoul last week were telling its residents not to jump red-lights, throw litter or be disorderly and a collection of kitschy dolls depicting G20 leaders was put on display on a barge at the Seoul Lantern Festival. Never mind that the Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was depicted at first in the Austrian national dress!

The South Korean party notwithstanding, the big question this week after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s return to Delhi is the growing debate over the relevance of the G20 itself as an effective forum for global action.

He has been satisfied that his suggestions to make global finance more responsive to developing country needs and ‘shared growth’ were accepted by the others and in a sense he has emerged as a sort of elder statesman in this grouping.

But overall most analysts agree that what has primarily emerged from the Seoul G20 is a vague commitment to watch out for dangerous imbalances between economies and not to engage in monetary warfare.

The meeting began with huge divides among its members and though by the end of it they agreed on a communiqué with a little something for everyone the global reactions have been far from positive. Most seasoned observers are doubting if any country will actually do anything different as a result of the commitments made at the summit.

G20 heads of government met for the first time when the global economic crisis first became clear in 2008 and they have met five times since those inaugural summit level talks. During that acute crisis, world leaders looked like they were pulling together so much so that the South Koreans have even hyped up the grouping as a “steering committee of the world.” That optimism is fast fading away.

The G20 was supposed to replace the earlier G8 as a forum for global governance by bringing the other big players who mattered in a changing world order. The old forum was basically the white, western world plus Japan so reform was a good idea but it has run into a fundamental problem.

In the old days, every member of the elite club essentially agreed on the basic fundamentals of globalisation and on a broad ideological consensus on the system they wanted to move towards, which was predicated on the post-second World War Breton-Woods principles.

That consensus has broken down, the old ideas – which at their heart were meant to bring everyone else in line with the West – don’t work anymore and there has been a profound shift in global power and economic patterns.

The sparring between Beijing and Washington on currency rates is an obvious example but there is a fundamental divide today between countries running large deficits today and those that are running large surpluses. Germany for instance has been more critical of recent US economic policy than even China.

At a deeper level though we are seeing a leadership vacuum in as much as the United States is a much diminished power, the European are frantically hanging on to delusions of past grandeur and the new giants like China and to a lesser extent, India, are still coming to grips with the responsibilities of sitting on the global high power.

Put simply, the older members can’t impose solutions like they did earlier and in any case are divided. The newer ones are still coming to terms with their new status and psychologically at some level still haven’t changed their mind-sets to think of themselves as the real new big boys in town. As Gideon Rachman, the author of a new book, Zero-Sum World, has argued, “far from being a solution to the world’s most urgent problems, the G20 looks increasingly divided, ineffectual and illegitimate.”

For the near future then, we have a much messier, uncertain world. India’s role will be crucial in this shifting power dynamic. This is why during Obama’s visit to India, PM Singh’s decision to back the US Fed’s recent moves to buy $600 billion in US Treasury bonds to boost the economy was perhaps as important as other high octane talk on the UN Security Council and Pakistan.

India is the only major country to back Washington on this so publicly. Others including Germany and China have been very critical and Delhi’s position drew big headlines internationally, though it was barely noticed in the Indian press. As an embattled Obama increasingly looking towards Manmohan Singh for support, this is one international equation that will be perhaps as important to watch in the near future as any G20 meeting.