You could be forgiven if you wondered what the two-day G20 summit held on October 30-31 in Rome has in common with the biblical “Babel of Tongues”.
The biblical term (Genesis 11: 1-9) applied to a city (now considered Babylon) in Shinar where God allegedly mistook a presumptuous attempt to build a tower reaching for heaven, confusing the language of the tower builders into several languages incomprehensible.
Now let’s move on from the old biblical cacophony to October 30, 2021, when heads of state and government gathered in the Italian capital for the Group of 20 (G20) summit.
The G20 is a strategic multilateral platform that connects the world’s major developed and emerging economies. Its strategic role is to ensure future global economic growth and prosperity, as its member countries account for over 80 percent of global GDP, 75 percent of international trade and 60 percent of the world’s population.
A modest start
The G20 got off to a humble start when in 1999 it held a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors, although over the years it has grown into a high-profile annual summit of heads of state and government. , almost acquiring the halo of the mighty Group of 7 (G7) nations.
In addition to hosting the summit, the G20 also holds Sherpa (officials responsible for leading negotiations and building consensus among leaders) meetings, task forces, and special events throughout the year.
The G20 countries rose to prominence during the great financial crisis of 2008 – the “great bloodbath,” as some hyperbole-leaning Wall Street pundits describe the crisis – in flattening major government policies. economic and financial regulation among the world’s major economies.
The election of US President Joe Biden sparked hopes of rekindling the old idea of joining forces with allies and like-minded nations to tackle any threat to Western democracies: President Biden has publicly stated that ‘he wanted to reestablish relations with his allies and friends and rebuild strong alliances with other democracies after his predecessor Donald Trump, not believing in alliances and the multilateral approach to any issue, shook the foundation of alliances. .
The G20, however, could face polarization within its ranks if it focused on an agenda of interest only to major Western countries and in doing so ignored the interests of the remaining members of the group and alienated them. . Added to this is the growing mistrust and distrust between the United States and China.
Divert from the original role
The G20 runs the risk of undermining its originally intended role as a driving force of cooperation to address the acute global problems and challenges facing humanity. The Rome summit could not entirely hide the cracks appearing in the apparent harmony and cordiality seen in the photo ops.
The G20 lens bore a strange similarity to scenes at the United Nations where the five permanent members compete for the support and influence of the majority of states, for their cause and national interests.
The Rome summit failed to come up with new ideas, for example, on the urgent issue of equitable global distribution of vaccines to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic that is currently ravaging the world with its proliferating variants. UN data suggests that the richest countries were able to administer at least one injection of the vaccine to nearly 64% of their population, the poorest countries, by comparison, could not even reach 5% of the population. their population.
The set target of providing vaccines to at least 40% of the world’s population by the end of 2021, rising to 70% by mid-2022, in line with recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO ), has not been reached; instead, the G20 produced a lip service like assurance that vaccine supplies would be increased.
But the summit had another dissenting element, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who, like his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, attended it virtually, criticized the West’s reluctance to recognize Chinese and Russian vaccines, and called for a equal treatment of all vaccines.
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
A glaring underperformance in Rome was the absence of any new commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions; the summit simply agreed to strive to achieve the overall goal of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, China and Russia insisted on setting their own target dates around 2060 while the India has set its zero emissions target for 2070.
The coal issue also failed to generate consensus in Rome – or at the ensuing Climate Change Summit in Glasgow – with Australia, China, India and Russia opposing it. phasing out the use of coal for energy; in the end, they could only agree on stopping international public funding for new coal-fired electricity production by the end of the current year.
The debt burden of poor countries requires urgent action. Poor countries face crushing debt that reached $ 860 billion in 2020, according to World Bank figures. The G20 has taken initiatives on the debt burden, but these have been largely ineffective. Its debt service suspension initiative is expected to expire by the end of 2021. The debt burden is a major economic and social problem with far-reaching ramifications.
While the ideals and goals of the G20 are lofty, the group must work hard to achieve consensus quickly and not allow issues to get trapped in the political quagmires resulting from the personal interests of individual members and their different political systems of government. governance and ideologies.
The Group’s inherent weaknesses, reflected in internal feuds and dissensions among members, can erode its credibility, making it look like a debate club where people come together simply to assert their views without achieving urgent results, as often happens in United States nations.
Manik Mehta is a New York-based journalist who writes extensively on foreign affairs, diplomacy, the United Nations, world trade and economics.