People were coming together to find a common way out of the 2008 economic crisis. The G20 Leaders met for the first time and expanded upon their Finance Ministers’ work. The BRICs were starting to counter-balance the G7 countries with their enormous populations, important industrial outputs and distinct foreign policies. Brazil and Turkey were UN Security Council Members and were working with Iran to try and find a way out of the nuclear deadlock. The United States and Russia were resetting their relationship, while North Korea’s threats were becoming increasingly serious, with its atomic tests and the sinking of a South Korean warship. Last but not least, the pre-Arab Spring Middle East was relatively stable.
The conditions were favorable for the creation of a G20 Foreign Ministers’ track that would handle building consensus and showing leadership over international security matters, namely in matters of nuclear proliferation. Looking at a map, it is obvious Russia, China, Turkey and India were in fact better positioned to deal with Iran and North Korea than the United States or France could be. The G20 could therefore signal intent of constructive engagement and dispatch regional powers to engage with rogue states’ leadership in search of solutions. After all, the economic and security fates of G20 countries were and still are so intertwined that the victories and defeats of one can be the victories and defeats of all.
The thesis I wrote advocated that sociological liberalism would pave the way for a better world. Good relationships between national leaders and ministers in the G20, regardless of their political orientation and developed through the building a common front over nuclear proliferation for instance, would benefit them personally as well as the countries they represent, by providing a safer, more stable world with more economic opportunities for its population.
The birth of the group
In February 2012, Mexico took the lead by inviting the G20’s head diplomats for an informal meeting on global governance – and their communiqué stated that they looked into “how the G20 could more effectively address some of the most pressing challenges in global governance and take action to address not only sporadic crises but also to address the system’s structural needs in order to prevent future crises.” The G20 Foreign Ministers group had finally come to be.
Its usefulness and relevance was demonstrated the next year. It was reconvened at the last minute in September 2013 by Russia over the chemical weapons crisis in Syria, to try and find a way out of the seemingly inevitable conflict that was set to happen between a Western coalition and President Assad’s regime. Days later, Russia brokered a deal with the US involving the handing over and destruction of the Syrian military’s chemical weapons stockpile through the OPCW, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year in recognition of their work which avoided another war in the Middle East.
A few months later, the fragile balance and relative common front over international security came apart when Russia started intervening in Crimea and supported armed groups in Eastern Ukraine. The move by Putin’s government in asserting its sphere of influence this close to European Union borders did not sit well with the world community and isolated its country. Russia was slapped with tough economic sanctions and suspended from the G8 (which went back to a G7).
Since that point, the G20 Foreign Ministers’ group had no reason to reconvene. Although they met for an informal working lunch in Turkey in November 2015 (which produced no common declaration), its members stand divided on the appropriate and efficient responses to global security issues – like in Ukraine and Syria. Moreover, many states face their own internal divisions at home, which has resulted in patchwork foreign policy with no clear means and no clear goals in recent years.
New world order
We are currently facing an uncertain, uncharted post-liberalism new world order. It is the most significant reconfiguration of power, politics and priorities since the end of the Cold War.
Iran has settled for a deal over its use of nuclear power and has pretty much reintegrated the world community, while North Korea, has waltzed into pathetic irrelevance under a new Kim.
The Arab Spring has turned to Winter and for the most part, it has failed to live up the expectations of those who rose and bled in its name in Egypt and Libya, leaving the Western powers embarrassingly dumbfounded.
Populist movements are in vogue rising throughout the world. They have made the United Kingdom exit the European Union, elected Donald Trump to the US presidency, maintained the ever-assertive Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russia with record approval ratings, and now have set their sights on France. Migrant crises and austerity budgets have damaged confidence in international institutions and have revived old national identities.
Turkey is becoming increasingly autocratic and turning eastwards, NATO has to face how far its members are committed to the defense of the alliance, while the BRICs are generally failing to truly prosper in a sluggish global economy.
The threats to G20 nations are not necessarily existential nowadays, but they are nonetheless deeply philosophical. Their main challenge is represented by a political and military fault line that links the Gulf of Finland to the Persian Gulf - from the Baltic States, through Eastern Ukraine, across the Mediterranean through the heart of Turkey and into the dark blot of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
It is along that line that 21st century Western political history will be decided. Will there be agreements and peace? Will nations simply let the confrontations turn into frozen conflicts? Or will they actually come to blows with one another?
The case for reconvening
The necessity and urgency of finding ways to mend differences and coordinating responses along the fault line are enough to warrant a reconvening of the G20 Foreign Ministers. Head diplomats from G20 countries will have to be agents of efficiency by smoothing relations and political terrains ahead of their nations’ leaders, which are increasingly defined by their seemingly intransigent attitudes, their go-at-it-alone ways of doing business and their open distrust of the institutions built by the world community over the last 70 years.
Can the last liberals stem the tide?
It came to my attention last week that Germany had decided to host a meeting of G20 Foreign Ministers on February 16 and 17 in Bonn, ahead of the leaders’ meeting in Hamburg this July. The Ministers will have the difficult yet essential task of building common ground over a world increasingly plagued by deadlocked security issues directly involving the G20’s membership.
This is the first test of the reset world order and the communiqué that will be issued (or not) by the representatives at the end of the two-day gathering will send a strong signal as to the state of international relations and the road ahead for managing the plethora of issues across the fault line.
Fortunately, it is not first time the East and West are at each other’s throats – there are precedents and ways out of the darkness.
It provides moments for liberal-minded countries to shine, like Germany, the engine of the European economy, and Canada, a stable, tolerant country keen on defending and getting involved supranational organizations. Germany could try and rebuild the bridges between Russia and Europe, while Canada can help articulate US foreign policy goals in a way that benefits all.
For Canada especially, there’s an opportunity to seize for Minister Chrystia Freeland, of the likes not seen since the days of Pearson and the Suez Canal crisis. For all the talk of Prime Minister Trudeau about his country being back on the world stage, the G20 offers Canada (ideally partnering with Germany) a chance to work at cementing the existence of the G20 Foreign Minsters group as a permanent yet flexible structure to manage the many security issues affecting G20 powers today.
By helping to build a formal rallying point for dialogue and dealmaking on international security, Canada and Germany can carve out their place in the brave new world order. A G20 Foreign Foreign Ministers’ group provides a small yet efficient forum of clear value that can appeal to the various populist movements to which some G20 leaders are accountable.