The coronavirus crisis is the time for the G20 to really show what it can do
Thursday’s G20 summit hosted by King Salman marked an important step in advancing the global response against coronavirus. Promising to do “whatever it takes” the collective noted that some $5 trillion had been injected into the global economy to “minimise the economic and social damage from the pandemic, restore global growth, maintain market stability, and strengthen resilience.”
It is rare in these politically difficult times to find things that we can all agree about, such is the partisan nature of politics and the level of global instability that we face. But the spectre of the killer virus disrupting the world for months, and possibly years has been proven a rare source of unity among a fractured global leadership.
Notwithstanding the fact that it’s comforting to see the world’s leaders having to conduct their affairs through webcam like the rest of us, it was important that the world’s richest nations all committed publicly together to do more to speed up the global response to the pandemic, and the $5tn figure is certainly impressive.
But bandying about massive sums of money is just the start of the fightback, and now the G20 really needs to make good on doing as much as possible to be a forum for sharing ideas and best practice. A G20 meeting of health ministers is due to take place some time before 20 April following up on the promises of cooperative work shown by their respective leaderships. This needs to be where the substantive work is done, or else the G20 risks looking like a place for world leaders to show off in front of their peers, without tying leaders down to substantive commitments.
This doesn’t mean that the G20 should enforce a standardised a response across the world. There are widely differing approaches being taken by countries towards handling this problem, which is their right to pursue, and the G20 isn’t a security council that can violate state sovereignty. Nor is it a body that can force states to engage to make U-turns on policies like sanctions on states, which President Putin of Russia urged during his speech.
Instead the G20’s role can, and should be that of a trend setter, where powerful states can shape a global conversation around action, and then encourage other states in their respective neighbourhoods to do the same. It is a place to show solidarity for states that have experienced severe human trauma like Italy, Spain and China, which can take the sting out of the accusatory tone that has pervaded international discourse of late.
It doesn’t matter whose fault COVID-19 was, the problem affects all of us, and the framework of the G20 holds states to a shared discourse that can be conducted in a more constructive tone than in press conferences or on Twitter. The G20 also provides a chance for countries better understand the stresses and strains that others are experiencing, and adapt their policy responses accordingly.
There is a real chance to build momentum for a global conversation to progress in areas like healthcare, the establishment of joint research programmes in which international scientists come together to help solve this problem, and the sharing of knowledge and experience is vital at a time like this.
With so much goodwill apparently on the TV screen, now is the time to capitalise and build positive steps forward for global cooperation. It might be interesting to see world leaders gathering together to talk, it looks impressive and makes the news, but let’s really keep an eye out for that meeting of health ministers in April, then we’ll really know if the G20 is doing what it said it would; defeating this virus and getting all of us back to work again.
Michael Stephens is an Associate Fellow at RUSI, follow him on Twitter @MikerStephens.