Global policy consensus continues to elude G-20

C. Uday Bhaskar
C. Uday Bhaskar
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The testy G-20 summit that concluded in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Saturday (December 1) had a silver lining, in that the leaders were able to agree on a final document at the end of the two-day deliberations – a consensus that had eluded the APEC summit that was held a fortnight earlier in Papua New Guinea in mid-November.

The G-20 brings together leaders of the Group of 20 nations, who between them account for more than 85 percent of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population.

Conceived in 2008, the G-20 is the most inclusive global forum that brings together many disparate nations that includes the prosperous G-7 plus the developing nations – a total of 19 and the EU.

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This group focuses on macro-economic and global policy issues and the Argentina meeting was slim on substantive content – which is an indication of the current discord among the major powers.

All indications from Buenos Aires are that 2019 is going to be even more contentious over the very critical trade-economic and climate change issues that warrant a much higher degree of international consensus.

Thus the opening section of the final statement noted gravely: “We welcome the strong global economic growth while recognizing it has been increasingly less synchronized between countries and some of the key risks, including financial vulnerabilities and geopolitical concerns, have partially materialized. We also note current trade issues.”

The discord between the US and China on trade matters on one hand and that between the US-EU combine and Russia over security issues subsumes the permanent five members of the UN Security Council

C. Uday Bhaskar

Under-statement of the year

This could be deemed to be the under-statement of the year given the current trade turbulence that the US has triggered.

Domestic political pandering has led to a surge in nationalist sentiment and related protectionist policies that go against the grain of globalization and while there is a strong case for introducing much greater emphasis on an equitable approach that is also sustainable, the Trump policy seems to be to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The G-20 statement adds that while international trade and investment are important engines of growth, productivity, innovation, job creation and development and the leaders acknowledge the contribution that the multilateral trading system has made to that end, they also recognize that “the system is currently falling short of its objectives and there is room for improvement.”

The WTO has been found to be inadequate and the leaders – one presumes reluctantly agreed – “to support the necessary reform of the WTO to improve its functioning (and) review progress at our next Summit.”

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Evidently it was perhaps tacitly decided in Argentina that it was better to accommodate the petulant US position on many of the contentious trade-economic issues – even if it was untenable – than have a repeat of the climate change conundrum, where the US decided to walk away last year from the agreements it had earlier signed up to.

In relation to this global challenge, the G-20 document notes the divergence between the US and the other members and notes: “Signatories to the Paris Agreement, who have also joined the Hamburg Action Plan, reaffirm that the Paris Agreement is irreversible and commit to its full implementation, reflecting common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in light of different national circumstances.”

Concurrently it was added that “the United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement” and it is likely that this dissonance between Washington and the rest of the world will be felt also at the climate conference opening in Katowice, Poland, on December 3.

Modest takeaway

One modest takeaway from the G 20 summit was a bilateral agreement between Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping wherein the White House announced that tariffs against China will not be raised from 10 to 25 percent on the understanding that the latter will substantially increase its imports from the United States to “reduce the trade imbalance between our two countries.”

Whether this kind of arm-twisting will lead to a virtuous cycle of sustainable economic growth and employment generation within the US is suspect, even though it may lead to short-term electoral advantage.

Many domain experts fear that this Trump led preference for protectionism could exacerbate the very problem it is seeking to redress in the US and hence the anxiety that 2019 could be even more quarrelsome and lead to a global recession.

The big ticket geo-political issue at Buenos Aires was the Russia-Ukraine crisis and it did not come up for any meaningful discussion, for the meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin did not take place. Terrorism came in for brief mention with the mandatory “strong condemnation of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.”

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What is disconcerting is that at a time when complex challenges confront the international community in trade and economic matters where the accepted template on globalization is being jettisoned; and in relation to climate change and global warming that is causing massive disruptions across the globe including mass migration in many parts of the world – any kind of meaningful policy consensus among global leaders has become elusive.

The discord between the US and China on trade matters on one hand and that between the US-EU combine and Russia over security issues subsumes the permanent five members of the UN Security Council.

The next G-20 summit is to be held in Japan and there is little on the horizon to suggest that it will lead to a more optimistic outcome than what was evidenced in Buenos Aires. Bleak year ahead?
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.

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