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We live in a chaotic world of spillovers – that’s why we will always need multilateral platforms like the G20

National efforts are important, but they are made much more powerful if they are reinforced by other nations

Ben Chu
Sunday 02 December 2018 15:07
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Leaders take their places for 'family photo' at G20 summit

When the G20 leaders’ summit was established a decade ago it had a very clear point. That point was global coordination of fiscal and monetary stimulus in the midst of a raging global economic and financial crisis.

The neighbourhood was on fire and all the residents had a clear interest in working together to put it out. This was coordination at the top – the highest levels of government and policy-making. But now, 10 years on, “the top” seems to be in utter disarray. The US, under the erratic leadership of Donald Trump, has launched waves of trade aggression against allies and opponents alike.

'Get me out of here' mutters Trump as he wanders off G20 stage leaving Argentina's President Macri on his own

Trump drips with hostility towards multilateralism in general, pulling out of the United Nations Paris Climate Accords and seeking to kick away the institutional supports of the World Trade Organisation. He reviles “globalists” and any hint at “global governance”. The G20, in this new era, has become a fractious and ineffectual talking shop.

So what is its point now?

Thomas Bernes of the Centre for International Governance Innovation concludes that the communique that emerged from this weekend’s meeting in Buenos Aires was a pitiful capitulation to Trumpism.

“Leaders buried their differences in obscure language and dropped language to fight protectionism, which had been included in every G20 communique since the leaders’ first summit,” he says.

“This is clearly a retrograde step forced by United States intransigence ... This is a big hit to the credibility of the G20 to provide resolute leadership in addressing global problems.”

Even the bilateral US trade “deal” with China unveiled late on Saturday in Buenos Aires was merely a pause in the upward ratchet of tariffs, rather than an end to the conflict. This could easily unravel – just as a previous agreement in May did.

Gordon Brown, who helped forge the modern G20, recently warned that we are living in a “leaderless world” and that in a future global financial crisis “we will not have the worldwide cooperation necessary to get us out”.

In other words, if we have another fire, the residents will be too divided to cooperate to save the neighbourhood from incineration.

Hope, to the extent that it exists, comes not from the top, but the bottom, say some.

Major American cities and states are still committed to decarbonisation through tax and regulation, despite Trump’s walk away from Paris. And encouraging technological progress in batteries, electric vehicles and energy conservation is being made by private sector companies.

Dieter Helm, an Oxford University energy expert, wrote a provocative article last week arguing that national governments should stop pushing “top-down” climate change solutions through summits and multilateral agreements and instead pump public money into a grassroots research and development drive.

The trouble is that this is false dichotomy. Both are needed.

It’s important to recognise that top-down multilateral and national action on climate change in recent decades has stimulated those low-carbon investment markets and business breakthroughs we are seeing. Government subsidies for key technologies and regulations have put incentives in the system that have facilitated their growth. More broadly, the idea that it would do no harm to scrap forums like the G20 is wrong.

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Research by Adam Triggs (Director of research at the Asian Bureau of Economic Research at the Australian National University) shows that policymakers themselves still claim to find the forum useful. Yet more important is the record of effectiveness. The 2008 stimulus efforts did succeed in preventing a repeat of the Great Depression.

And coordinated sanctions on countries like Russia, such as those imposed after Moscow’s aggression in Crimea in 2014, do have an effect. Life has become much more uncomfortable for tycoons close to the Kremlin and sanctions have hit the Russian economy.

Contrast that with the treatment of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the recent Khashoggi killing, when governments failed to present a united front. Germany halted arms exports to Riyadh, but the US, Canada and UK did not.

The upshot is that the message of condemnation is fatally diluted and the Saudi crown prince feels secure enough to high-five Vladimir Putin in public. And, of course, there is no wholly national solution to something like the 2015 refugee surge into Europe from the Middle East. The EU’s failure to devise a coherent and unified approach there watered the roots of xenophobic populism on the continent.

National efforts are more effective if they are reinforced by other nations. We live in a chaotic world of spillovers – both bad and good.

While that remains the reality, there will be a place for multilateral forums like the G20, however frustrating, ineffectual and pointless they might sometimes seem.

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