Global Alternatives 2024
What Are the Prospects for the G20 Format?

The most promising scenario for the future of the G20 group is the strengthening of the G20+ framework. There are two key areas for improvement: first, it is necessary to shift the balance within the G20 between Western and non-Western countries towards increased representation of the Global South and non-West; and second, the invited G20+ members should not only be participants at the summit meetings, but also engage in all other G20 activities throughout the year. Oleg Barabanov, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, reflects on various scenarios for the evolution of the G20.

Participants in one of the expert discussions organised by the Valdai Club, devoted to analysing possible ways to enhance the effectiveness of the Group of Twenty (G20), noted that the current situation in the world has led to increased politicisation within the G20. In addition to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has added another layer of complexity to the group’s discussions. The sharp differences in views regarding this struggle among members of the G20 further contribute to the politicization of the group and create new fault lines between them. These divisions were also evident in the recent ministerial meetings on foreign and financial affairs held under Brazil’s G20 presidency.

The significance of this division was also emphasized at the inaugural Inception Conference, held in early March in the Think20 forum, an expert panel within the Group. At this conference, the Brazilian Sherpa to the G20, Ambassador Mauricio Lírio, stated directly that the very survival of the G20 has begun to face genuine risks in recent years.

The Valdai Club has previously discussed issues regarding the effectiveness of the G20. Originally conceived as a platform for the largest Western and non-Western countries, it has sometimes been less successful than both the G7, which represents Western nations, and BRICS, which brings together non-Western nations. When comparing the communiques from G20 summits to those of the G7 and BRICS meetings, it is worth noting that the statements from the G20 can sometimes appear less impactful compared to those from the other two groups, as they sometimes reach a consensus on a lower level of agreement.

This was evident in the previous geopolitical period, prior to the current conflict. Even at that time, media coverage of the G20 summits focused not on the G20 per se, but primarily on bilateral meetings held in conjunction with it.

During the aforementioned discussion at the Valdai Club, participants attempted to identify various potential outcomes for the future course of events within the G20. Among these, the most adverse scenario would be the formal or de facto dissolution of the organization, the possibility of which has been previously mentioned. A second possibility would be a permanent politicisation of G20 activities; their transformation into a series of controversies, undermining their effectiveness. A third potential outcome is for the Group’s members to limit politicized discussions exclusively to those related to geopolitical issues, while working together on other matters. A fourth, more optimistic, scenario would see the discussion of geopolitical concerns (and associated controversies) completely removed from the G20 agenda, as the organization was not originally established as a geopolitical forum but rather as a platform for addressing common global challenges. The fifth scenario envisions the strengthening of the G20+ format, with the participation of other non-Western and Global South countries in the work of the Group playing a significant role. The sixth scenario involves not only the G20+, but also the expansion of the permanent membership of the G20 to include additional non-Western countries, thereby enhancing the voice of the Global South. Finally, the ideal scenario would see the complete resolution of all contradictions and disagreements in approaches, resulting in harmonious collaboration among all parties.

As realists, we need to understand that not all the scenarios presented are equally feasible. Unfortunately, it is almost certain that some of the negative outcomes, in principle, could occur amid the current geopolitically tense situation. However, this is not necessarily the case for positive outcomes. It is highly unlikely that the ideal scenario we proposed will materialise in the near future. Additionally, it is not likely that the G20 can avoid politicising its work. This is because the G20 members are unlikely to abandon their respective national interests and foreign policy objectives, which often conflict with each other. As a result, it would be unreasonable to expect significant changes in their approach towards each other in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, it is unlikely that new members will join the G20 in the coming years. Inclusion in the permanent membership of the African Union Group would be an exception, rather than a precedent for the future.

In our view, one of the more realistic scenarios for institutional and procedural reform of the G20 is the strengthening of the G20+. By now, a format for inviting guests to G20 summits has evolved. This includes both representatives of international and regional organisations, as well as leaders of individual countries. Meanwhile, if we consider specific countries, only one has de facto permanent guest status — and that is a Western nation — Spain. Additionally, the chairman of NEPAD (New Partnership for African Development) participates in summits on a rotational basis. All other guest nations are invited by the host of the summit, and their representation varies considerably from year to year. Is the current G20+ format sufficiently effective? In our view, it is not. Therefore, we propose two key institutional recommendations for its improvement.

The first recommendation is to shift the balance between Western and non-Western countries within the G20 in order to strengthen the representation of the Global South. This is because in the current context of the G20, with Western countries speaking with a unified voice and all G7 members also being members of the G20, the G20 agenda is often reduced to either adapting the positions of non-Western countries to those of the West or to a tedious and ineffective search for a compromise.

This shift would help ensure that the voices of non-Western and Global South countries are more effectively heard and considered in G20 discussions. Until recently, there was a fundamental numerical parity between the Western and non-Western members of the Group of Twenty (G20). The ten permanent members of the G20 comprise the political West — Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as the European Union.

Similarly, there are also ten members representing the global South and non-West — Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Turkey (if we consider Turkey as a non-Western member and overlook its NATO membership). Last year, the African Union was admitted as a permanent member of the G20. Therefore, there is now a numerical imbalance in the representation of Western and non-Western countries within the G20. The group has agreed that the non-Western representation should be proportionally greater than the Western representation. We believe that this trend should continue through the G20+ format, and there is no reason to fear a further increase in the representation of the Global South and non-West in the G20. This would align the G20 with its objective of representing the diverse perspectives of countries worldwide and avoiding a Western-centric approach. We believe that, in addition to Spain, the status of permanent invitations to participate in the G20 could be extended to BRICS members that are currently not fully integrated into the G20 grouping (namely, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the UAE). Furthermore, each country that holds the G20 presidency should commit to inviting five to ten additional countries from the Global South and non-West to participate.

The second recommendation is both institutional and procedural in nature. It is important that G20+ countries, whether invited on a permanent or ad hoc basis, should not only act as guests at the summit, which essentially does not influence the course of events, but also participate fully and on an equal footing with the members of the actual G20 in all G20-related events throughout the year. This includes the Sherpa Track, Financial Track, Engagement Groups, Think20, and others. This will ensure that they have an equal opportunity to develop recommendations, contribute to the drafting of a summit declaration, etc. In this way, their status within the G20 would be elevated from that of ordinary guests to similar to non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, enhancing their involvement in G20 activities and making the G20 process more inclusive.

Reforms of this nature will also naturally necessitate the goodwill of G20 member states. However, in our view, achieving this outcome is more feasible than in the context of other positive scenarios for G20 reform.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.