Why the G20 still matters

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Ten years on, the G20 still has relevance – and not just as inspiration for a clever skit in the latest Saturday Night Live. The G20 countries are the principal shareholders in the global economy. Together, these 19 nations and the European Union represent 85 percent of global output and two-thirds of the world’s peoples.

At its best, the G20 gets the major economies steering in the same direction – essential if responsible globalization is to succeed. The G20 works with the heads of the key financial, economic and trade institutions and draws advice from business, labour and civil society.

If the G7 leadership is mostly liberal democrats, the G20 includes autocrats, authoritarians and, apparently, authorizers of assassination. Their communiqués, like their plenary sessions, tend to the platitudinous, aspirational and run-on.

The leaders’ declaration – building consensus for fair and sustainable development – is a mouthful, but its 31-point communique is the most succinct in years. Importantly, the leaders commit to improving a “rules-based international order” capable of effectively responding to our “rapidly changing world.”

The communiqué addresses the conference’s three main themes – the future of work, infrastructure and food – all areas of Canadian interest. Gender mainstreaming – the assessment of the implications of public policy on gender – is a Canadian priority and criss-crosses the entire agenda. Reform of the World Trade Organization gets a boost. A Canadian initiative on improving WTO dispute-settlement provisions got another airing at Buenos Aries.

Leaders acknowledged climate change, but avoided making a choice between renewables and fossil fuels. Instead they endorse “different possible national paths” to achieve cleaner energy systems. The IMF and World Bank are directed to get a better grip on cross-border financial flows as well as public and private debt obligations between borrowers and creditors.

The communiqué reaffirmed past commitments to combat terrorism and money laundering. It noted the threat of anti-microbial resistance. Africa and the development agenda got a nod. It punted migration and the displaced to the next G20 summit, which will be hosted by Japan in 2019.

While endorsing transformative technology, leaders implicitly recognize that some jobs are never coming back. Governments need to be creative and deliberative in addressing adjustment. Policies need to be multifaceted. This means wage subsidies, earned-income tax credits and investments in communities.

To create an innovative economy, governments need to rethink education to encourage cognitive, digital and entrepreneurship skills. Are we doing enough in early childhood development? Do our schools develop STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – competencies? Do we have the right funding balance between the ivory tower and vocational training;, between applied sciences and the liberal arts? Do we invest enough in apprenticeships? Given the mismatch in skills seen in many countries, should business have more of a voice in higher education? How do we facilitate lifelong learning?

The opportunity for formal and informal face-to-face meetings between leaders is the real value of these summits. With the principal players in one place, things can get done.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland convinced her G7 counterparts to express their “utmost concern” over Russian aggression against Ukraine. Unable to get G8 consensus around the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Canada announced its own sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals. The two actions were at least some riposte to the egregious high-fiving between Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman.

Bookending this summit was the Friday-morning signing of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the Saturday dinner shared by presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, where the two leaders agreed to a trade truce and set a 90-day deadline for a new pact.

The USMCA is not perfect. It’s more managed trade than free trade. Justin Trudeau reminded President Trump that there is still unfinished business around the steel and aluminium tariffs. Canada will probably have to settle for a cap or the kind of creative solution – wage thresholds – that broke the impasse on the auto rules of origin.

While the USMCA is now signed, it still needs to be sealed through the implementation of legislation in each country. The Trudeau government should await U.S. ratification. We need to be sure that Mr. Trump’s legislation conforms to our agreement and that he can deliver its passage through the new Congress.

Like all international institutions, the G20 has its flaws. Originally a Canadian initiative that brought finance ministers and central bankers together, it was raised to leaders’ level at the onset of the Great Recession. A decade later, it still makes a useful contribution to global welfare.