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Multilateral Summits Think Big, But Produce Little More Than Talk

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Once again, it's summit season for global diplomacy. A host of multilateral meetings have filled up the summer calendar: the G-8 met in May in the United States, as did NATO; the G-20 gathered in Mexico in June, with just a brief pause before the Rio+20 U.N. summit convened in Brazil; the Europeans have held multiple powwows to discuss the euro crisis; and the African Union met last month in Malawi for its annual summit.

While bold promises and commitments flood out from these meetings at a predictable rate, if historical precedent is anything to go by, most will be just as quickly forgotten or ignored.

President Barack Obama characterized the G-8 summit as "frank and useful conversation" and "very fruitful." That's no surprise; similar euphemisms by world leaders always seem to emerge after every such multilateral summit, no matter what's actually accomplished. The Rio+20 was a grand affair that drew nearly 100 heads of state and tens of thousands of participants to Brazil, but in the end it failed to attract key leaders such as Obama and produced little in the way of tangible climate solutions.

That's not to say global gatherings aren't necessary. Multilateralism is essential to solving interlocking challenges such as climate change, the economic slump and the Arab uprisings.

The main question, thus, should not be whether world leaders find these meetings useful from a discussion standpoint, but rather, do such international gatherings result in any concrete changes?

As relatively nascent institutions such as the G-20 evolve and solidify into permanent world bodies and events, the countries comprising these organizations are slowly being prodded by their citizens and the media to ensure that commitments become more than just talking points. One group in particular is determined to hold countries accountable for their ambitious promises.

The G-20 Research Group at the University of Toronto has begun releasing regular reports tracking individual G-20 nations' compliance with the commitments made at the previous year's summit. This could not have come at a better time given the proliferation of summit bodies and the broad, urgent agendas they frequently take on.

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Photo: Presidencia de la Nación Argentina / www.presidencia.gov.ar
Heads of state meet for last year's G-20 summit in the French city of Cannes. Though big on pomp and promises, major multilateral gatherings such as the G-20 are often short on specifics and action.

Multilateral summits have changed drastically over the past decade. Previously, the premier global meeting involved the heads of state of the G-8 major industrialized countries. But the worldwide financial crisis and growing clout of many developing countries necessitated changes to the global order and redefined whom the relevant international players will be for years to come.

The G-20, formerly a gathering of finance ministers, transitioned into a heads-of-state meeting in 2008 to marshal international resources in the face of the global economic slowdown. The inclusion of the fast-growing economies of China, Brazil, India, South Korea, Turkey and others made the G-20 a better arena for global discussion than the mostly developed countries that made up the G-8. The G-20 is "more representative of the world's economic powers than the G-7 or the G-8," wrote Lex Rieffel of the Brookings Institution in reaction to the first G-20 heads of state summit four years ago.

But the expanded G-20 didn't win over everybody. Many international observers point out that the group still excludes four-fifths of the world's nations. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has said the G-20 lacks "international legitimacy — it has no mandate and it is unclear which functions it actually has." He added that its composition is still "arbitrary" and that we no longer live in "a time when the major powers met and redrew the map of the world."

But the reinvigorated G-20 has taken off, and its agenda has ballooned, encompassing not only economic challenges but issues such as clean energy, climate change, development, and even North-South dialogue.

Critics say that expansion has made the group unwieldy and clouded its original purpose: the need for a coordinated response to the inter-related economic crises threatening Europe, the United States, Asia and the rest of the world. On that front, the G-20 served as a beacon of hope when global financial markets teetered in 2008, but lately, it seems to have reverted into yet another talk shop that simply exposes the deep-seated divisions among world powers and the larger holes in global governance. Instead of bold multilateralism, G-20 nations muddle through while pledging to do better.

David Rothkopf, editor at large of Foreign Policy magazine, attributes some of this inaction to inertia on the part of world leaders, who are often hemmed in by domestic constraints.

"One reason today's seeming global power void is so frustrating is that we actually live at or near the moment of the world's greatest aggregate wealth, a time when more nations possess more engines and instruments of real power than ever before," he wrote in the article "For Multilateralism, Is This the Dark Moment Before the Dawn?"

"Our problem is not that the biggest powers are incapable of action to address current problems. It's that just when the promise of a new post-Cold War, post-single-superpower era of collaboration among nations seemed to be greatest, many of the big powers have revealed themselves to be unwilling to assume the responsibilities of true global leadership — of motivating, cajoling, inspiring, intimidating, confronting or blocking actions by other powers. It's not so much that we are in a G-Zero world as it is that most of our leaders are zeroes," he argued, citing Germany's Angela Merkel and her myopic response to the euro crisis, as well as Russian and Chinese foot-dragging over the Syria conflict.

Much of the criticism surrounding these multilateral shindigs comes down to commitments, which are routinely made but rarely executed. However, the G-20 has made some recent strides to be more responsive to outside scrutiny and ensure that demonstrable results come out of its time-consuming and costly meetings.

While it's difficult to gauge how much of this change is due to the G-20 Research Group's influence, the watchdog has certainly cast a greater light on the summit's commitments. Now, as the research group's reports have enjoyed increasing media attention, world leaders are taking notice.

"We had one of the G-20 heads of state at the Cannes summit tell us that our compliance report was discussed by the leaders as part of the summit," explained John Kirton, co-director of the G-20 Research Group. Other leaders have contacted the group with questions about their results after reading the report, he noted.

Kirton said he is encouraged by these developments and has noticed that the summit decision makers are balancing their "ever-escalating verbiage in communiqués" with implementing outlines produced in the meetings.

The financial straits that many countries have found themselves in have also motivated them into action. "Accountability is being boosted this year because few countries have money to spare, so there is a greater premium to making sure commitments made, money or otherwise, are effective," Kirton told The Diplomat.

Across all international summits, in fact, a trend toward ensuring compliance seems to rising. The G-8 published its own accountability report at its 2010 Muskoka summit in Canada. According to Caroline Bracht, a researcher at the G-20 Research Group, this transparency is an "attempt at legitimacy at a time when the G-20 has taken center stage" and doubts have emerged about the relevance of the G-8.

Accountability and transparency are also becoming important to the citizens of G-20 countries, according to Terra Lawson-Remer, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "To increase its legitimacy — and, ultimately, its effectiveness — the G-20 needs to improve transparency and accountability to the diverse constituencies that are ultimately impacted by the deals leaders cut behind closed doors in Cannes and Los Cabos," wrote Lawson-Remer.

One major obstacle against participants keeping their word at these summits may actually be that they have too much control of how commitments are worded. By crafting commitments in vague diplo-speak, these leaders have been known to create rhetorical escape hatches for themselves.

A related development has been member states outsourcing the execution of commitments to international organizations such as the World Bank or the World Trade Organization.

For Kirton, one of the major problems with this sort of outsourcing is the very mandates of the international organizations themselves. "Pascal Lamy [the director-general of the WTO] is legally obliged to define protectionism as the WTO does, which is a narrow definition." However, this definition may not be the most accurate or useful one for G-20 countries, Kirton contends.

Such world bodies are also often hesitant to call out individual member states for non-compliance because doing so may complicate the decision-making process around other issues.

According to some, this is where organizations such as think tanks and research centers may need to step in. Stewart M. Patrick, another fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said think tanks can provide useful insight into this process "since they are less hampered by diplomatic niceties and political sensitivities."

Another issue is that even if a summit produces unity on difficult economic matters, there is always the danger that continued fiscal problems might lead to a breakdown in any macroeconomic consensus formed at these summits. "There is a risk that individual countries may resort to beggar-thy-neighbor policies on exchange rates, monetary policy, regulatory arbitrage and other means to restore growth, even if the global implications for strong, stable and balanced growth are unfavorable," wrote Kemal Dervis and Homi Kharas, two Brookings development scholars, in a recent commentary.

As Bracht of the G-20 Research Group pointed out, compliance with trade commitments is often ignored because of domestic politics. On the other hand, Dervis and Kharas wrote that "staving off these pressures is one of the unsung achievements of the G-20." Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how long these pressures can be kept at bay with ongoing economic turmoil across the globe and the diminishing patience of unemployed voters.

Another interesting development is how various international gatherings have been institutionalized into more permanent bodies. Some G-20 countries, such as Brazil and France, among others, have been pushing for the creation of a formal G-20 secretariat, for example. The United States opposes such a move, however. Critics say that's because U.S. policymakers prefer a more malleable structure that they can easily shape to further America's own interests.

Some observers also believe that a bureaucratization of the summit will hinder decision making and execution — the very issues supporters of formalizing the G-20 believe a secretariat will solve. A structured bureaucracy could make it easier for the G-20 to track its own record, but there is no proof that it will be able to do so in an accurate manner, they say.

"It's the equivalent of students giving themselves their own grades," argues Kirton of the G-20 Research Group. "It is an independent check but it lacks playing-field credibility."

He says it is important for G-20 leaders to have outside, fact-based evaluations of how well or poorly they adhered to their commitments because "the leaders made these commitments, made them in good faith, and made them genuinely believing that they could get them done."

There are some positive signs that G-20 governments are embracing Kirton's proposed reforms. For the June G-20 summit in Los Cabos, the host country of Mexico made overtures to groups outside of the national governments participating in the meeting. Parallel consultation groups for business and labor were set up, for example. Another sign that change is under way came when the Mexican government increased transparency of the event by tweeting about its G-20 preparations.

Many would say this is a good start, but such voluntary moves are entirely up to the G-20 country hosting the summit. It is highly questionable, then, whether Russia, which will take the reins of the G-20 in December, will continue with this approach. As Lawson-Remer of CFR wrote, "Without genuine ex ante engagement to build trust and support with diverse domestic constituencies — labor, business, civil society, and the members of parliaments and congresses that purportedly represent these different interests — leaders will never have the space within the G-20 to negotiate meaningful agreements."

Based on recent steps, however, there's been a clear trend toward greater openness and summits that prize results over handshakes. Kirton, for one, expects to see this trend continue.

Without such progress, heads of state will continue to gather while the rest of the world rolls its collective eyes at summits that are much ado about nothing. Multilateralism is desperately needed to tackle today's globalized problems — empty rhetoric is not. Action though will depend on holding heads of state accountable for their rhetoric and bringing the lofty ideals of global summitry back down to earth to produce real change on the ground.


About the Author

Talha Aquil is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

Last Edited on July 31, 2012