Asia and Eurasia
Why International Institutions Survive: An Afterword to the G20 Summit

The fact that the G20 is a tool for the civilised dismantling of the existing order rather than their renewal does not mean its immediate death. After all, we already know examples where organisations created to “divorce” participants retain their vitality beyond solving the most important problems associated with this unpleasant process, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.

We, of course, are extremely critical of the very idea of global institutions and the prospects for their survival amid the emergence of a qualitatively new international order. Basic ideas about how such organisations appear and why they work, as well as the practical experience of the past decades, constantly demonstrate how unprepared such forms of interaction between states turn out to be to solve their most important hypothetical task — limiting selfish manifestations in the behaviour of their own creators. However, the institutions persist and, moreover, their number is increasing due to the formation of new specific regional platforms and global gatherings of powers, which is happening both formally and informally.

Just a few days ago, another G20 summit took place in Indonesia — a meeting of the 20 supposedly most developed powers. These economies first convened 13 years ago to discuss the fight against the global consequences of the financial crisis in Western countries. This association is not a formal international organisation, unlike the UN or the World Trade Organization, and does not have its own secretariat or specialised agencies. However, in its composition, the G20 has turned out to be one of the most promising institutional undertakings of the entire post-Cold War period.

The reason is that the G20, first, is quite objective in terms of participation criteria and, second, is completely non-democratic in terms of the formation of its membership. In the simplest terms, it was created by the leading powers of the West — the G7 countries — at a historical moment when they felt the need to make their decisions more legitimate, to gain a new way to influence growing economies, and, finally, share some of their own economic difficulties with the rest of the world not only in fact, but also organisationally.

Other countries of the world included in the G20 list compiled by the USA and Britain were glad to accept this invitation. First of all, because they saw an opportunity to limit the West’s monopoly on making the most important decisions, or, at least, to get new chances to reflect some of their interests there. Thus, both groups of participants made a very pragmatic choice amid circumstances where the West was still strong enough that no one could expect to survive without its consent.

The G20, as we can see, was created for special purposes in special circumstances, which, by the way, also applies to any international institution set up during the second half of the 20th and early 21st century. Even the United Nations (UN) was an intellectual creation of the United States and Britain, aimed to preserve and strengthen their influence on international affairs after the World War II. Another thing is that the UN still tried to live its own life, and now the presence of Russia and China in its “Areopagus”, i.e. among the permanent members of the Security Council, creates the appearance that the hypothetical pinnacle of world governance relatively adequately reflects the distribution of aggregate power capabilities. However, during the Cold War, as now, we see that all really important issues regarding war and peace are decided by the great powers among themselves.

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As for the impact on the main processes in the world that emerged after the end of the Cold War, here it was the G20 that was considered a suitable palliative solution juxtaposed between the omnipotence of the West and the desire of the rest to get at least a part of the “pie” of the global distribution of goods. Moreover, 14 years ago, when the G20 began to meet, none of the major countries of the modern World Majority imagined a direct confrontation with the West and all sought to integrate into the globalisation led by it, even without a special revision of the rules and norms that existed there before. This fully applies to Russia, which quite sensibly assessed its strength. There were still five years left before the ambitious Xi Jingping came to power in China, when most observers considered the strengthening of Beijing’s economic and political proximity to be the most plausible scenario for Sino-American relations.

However, it was the financial crisis of 2008-2013 that turned out to be a turning point, from which everyone seemed to have realised that it is not necessary to count on the existing model of globalisation to solve the basic problems of development and economic growth. The cyclicality of economic development and the accumulated imbalances in trade, global finance and everything else made it clear that a return to sustainable growth in the US and Europe was unrealistic, and saving what had already been created would require a much tougher policy in relation to the distribution of benefits on a global scale. The emerging economies, of which China quickly took the lead, could expect a more sustainable position, but also doubted the West’s ability to act as a benevolent engine of the global economy. In other words, it was at the very moment when the G20 emerged as an institution that the leading states realised that it was no longer possible to save globalisation in its previous form, and economic shocks would very likely lead to violent geopolitical clashes.

Therefore, the extremely informal and, at the same time, representative G20 arose precisely as a mechanism for a “civilised divorce” of countries actively involved in globalisation on the eve of its inevitable crisis.

In this respect, it was indeed the pinnacle of the institutional approach to problem-solving that marked the entire 20th century. What follows should be either the formation of a new balance of power and the adaptation of institutions to it, or their complete disintegration with an unclear prospect for states going beyond bilateral agreements or relatively narrow regional associations and forums.

We see that the most successful multilateral projects of our time are either a continuation of those that have already taken place, like ASEAN or NATO, or completely new regional groupings with uncertain prospects and internal structures. The promising Shanghai Cooperation Organisation should be included among the latter. The latest SCO summit in Uzbekistan revealed that its participants were highly able to single out from the whole set of international problems of Eurasia and their own development issues those that make sense to discuss at the multilateral level. In addition, Sino-Russian leadership in the SCO leaves hope that other participating countries will be able to build their interests into the priorities and integrity limits of the two Eurasian giants. India only adds pluralism, allowing alternatives to the increasingly solidarity positions of Moscow and Beijing to be put forward.

However, the fact that the G20 is, in reality, a tool for the civilised dismantling of the existing order rather than their renewal does not mean its immediate death. After all, we already know examples where organisations created to “divorce” participants retain their vitality beyond solving the most important problems associated with this unpleasant process. The latest G20 summit was overshadowed by the desire of the Western countries, which, together with their satraps from the European Union institutions, make up the majority, to turn the political part of the meeting into a fight against Russia. However, at the same time, we saw that the Indonesian presidency used such intentions to increase its independence in world affairs and rejected all Western claims regarding Russian participation. In addition, an important personal meeting between the leaders of the United States and China took place on the sidelines of the summit, which allowed them to temporarily dispel the expectation of an inevitable clash, which seemed likely only three months ago.

Of course, we are far from thinking that China, India or other developing countries, not to mention Russia, see the G20 as a way to take global leadership away from the West. In Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi and other capitals, they know that those institutions that do not fully meet American interests are easily sacrificed to the current circumstances. However, first, such a radical US approach still has a chance to change under increasing pressure from outside and inside. Second, the G20 is still a platform that can survive as at least a club filled with contradictions, precisely amid the complete decline of formal global international institutions. And it looks like we won’t have to wait very long.

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