Our best hope

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 November, 2008, 12:00am

This year has already gone down as among the most significant for decades, with the worst global economic crisis in a lifetime, the US electing its first non-white leader and China hosting its first Olympic Games. Topping these would not seem possible but, starting tonight, an occasion with even greater ramifications takes place. When the leaders of the 20 most important developed and developing countries sit down for dinner in Washington, the institutions that have governed so inadequately for so long will pale into relative insignificance. In their place will be a forum that finally has the ability to take up and resolve all our problems.

No such gathering presently exists. The UN's General Assembly is the closest, but its inclusion of the leaders of all member states makes it far too unwieldy to be an effective decision-maker. Multilateral organisations like the groups of seven and eight richest nations, the Group of 77 developing countries, the UN Security Council, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the like are either unrepresentative or governed by outdated and ineffective rules. They are generally the product of the world order as it stood in 1945 and 1975; the globalisation that has changed the way we live makes their worth limited.

This is not the case with the G20 at the leader level. In the members - Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey, the US and the European Union - is an overwhelming majority of the world's people, resources and power. They provide a good balance between advanced economies and rapidly emerging ones. All races, religions, colours, creeds and geographies are covered in its membership. The members have evolved from the short-lived G22, the brainchild of former US president Bill Clinton to tackle the Asian economic crisis in 1997. Expansion of the G7 to include Russia followed and there was soon a generalised agreement among nations that a more far-reaching forum was necessary. Canadian global governance expert John Kirton told me that among the most basic reasons for the setting up of the G20 grouping of finance ministers in 1999 were structural changes and challenges bred by globalisation, the growing strength of emerging economies, particularly in Asia, and the failure of organisations to deal with international problems. That the G20 had now been raised in stature to bring together national leaders made it the world's most important organisation, he said.

The summit, called by outgoing US President George W. Bush, has the remit of finding a solution to the financial crisis. At the formal meeting tomorrow, positions will be clarified and pondered over. Another summit will be held early next year. But Professor Kirton, the director of the University of Toronto's G8 Research Group, pointed out that the problems to be discussed will not be resolved in two or three meetings, nor will they be confined purely to finance and economics - development, energy and trade were definitely on the agenda because of their linkages to the meltdown and there was even a chance of climate change and terrorism sneaking on. He was in no doubt that, due to the complications and time needed, institutionalisation of the process was assured.

The world's problems will not be easily solved, but G20 leaders meeting regularly have the power to overcome them. Unlike national governments, they do not need legislation to enact their policies. They can order reform of the organisations that have served us so poorly. With so many matters affecting our lives tapping into finance and economics, they have a wide and powerful reach.

I agree wholeheartedly with Professor Kirton: an opportunity has arrived that must not be forsaken. It cannot be a one-off exercise for a specific issue, but one that has to become a permanent fixture. And, paradoxically, it may be the legacy of Mr Bush, the man whose presidency was so heavily grounded in unilateralism.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor