Viewpoint by Roberto Savio*
ROME (IDN | OtherNews) – For 2021, Italy has been given chairmanship of the Group of 20, which brings together the world’s 20 most important countries. On paper, they represent 60 percent of the world’s population and 80 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
While the shaky Italian government will somehow perform this task (in the general indifference of the political system), the fact remains that this apparently prestigious position is in fact very deceiving: the G20 is now a very weak institution that brings no kudos to the rotating chairman.
Besides, it is actually the institution which bears the greatest part of responsibility for the decline of the UN as the body responsible for global governance, a task that the G20 has very seldom been able to face up to.
Let us reconstruct how the G20 came about. It is a long story that began in 1975, when France invited the representatives of Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to become the Group of Six, or G6. The idea was to create a space for discussing the international situation, not for making decisions.
It then became the Group of Seven, with the addition of Canada in 1997. Russia was added in 1998, so the summit became known as the G8. And then, in 1980, the European Union was invited as a “non-enumerated member”. In 2005, the UK government initiated the practice of inviting the five leading emerging markets – Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa – to its meetings. That same year, in Washington, G8 leaders recognised the growth of most emerging countries, and decided that a meeting of the 20 most important countries of the world would replace the G8 and become the G20.
The United Nations, the European Union, and the major international monetary and financial institutions, were also invited. Spain is a permanent invitee, together with leaders of ASEAN, the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Financial Stability Board, the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank Group and the World Trade Organisation.
In addition, in the year of its chairmanship, the host country can invite some countries that it feels particularly associated with in its foreign policy. So far, 38 countries have been invited, from Azerbaijan to Chad, from Denmark to Laos, from Sweden to Zimbabwe.
To complete the history, it is important to mention that Russia was suspended by the G8 in 2014, because of its annexation of Crimea. And was never readmitted. In his inexplicable deference to Russian president Vladimir Putin, US president Donald Trump asked for its readmission to the G8, and this was refused by the other countries. The G7 has kept meeting as “a steering group of the West”. At the same time, the G20 meets regularly, with Russia as one of its members.
So, Italy has the task of inviting all those different actors, establish the agenda and planning and hosting a series of ministerial level meetings, leading up to the summit of head of governments. As its agenda, Italy has decided the “Three Ps”: People, Planet and Prosperity. This imaginative and original agenda will be structured in 10 specialised meetings, like Finance (Venice July 9-10), Innovation and Research (Trieste Aug. 5-8) and Environment, Climate, Energy (Naples, July 22), to give just a few examples. Beside these 10 specialised meetings, there will be 8 “engagement groups”, which will range from Business to Civil Society and Youth, etc.
The G20 is formed by countries that are involved in different and often contradictory groups. For instance, after Trump killed the Transatlantic Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Barack Obama had been able to put together excluding China, with a vast range of countries from Australia to Mexico and from Canada to Malaysia, China was able to reciprocate, and created the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which puts together the same countries plus some others, and leaves the United States completely outside. This commercial bloc is the largest ever created, accounting for 30 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the world’s GDP.
But the European Union, (to which Italy belongs) has explicitly taken a path of European nationalism, to make the EU able to survive in the coming competition between China and United States. The European Union (and therefore Italy) are also members of NATO, where the United States is the indispensable and fundamental partner. And in the G20 China sits with India, which is the only country that has refused to join the RCEP and is clearly taking an alternative path to Chinese expansion in Asia. But this is also the policy of Japan, which is very active in the G7 and the G20, and has entered RCEP, and like South Korea considers limiting Chinese expansionism a priority.
Of course, there are a number of other pacts, agreements, treaties and alliances that it would be boring and useless to enumerate here. Any one country, like Italy, would therefore wear several hats at the same time.
The point to make is, that since the arrival of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1981, the multilateral system started to come under attack. At the North-South Summit held in Cancun a few months after his election, Reagan questioned the idea of democracy and participation as bases for international relations. Until then, UN General Assembly resolutions had been considered the basis for global governance.
In 1973, the General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for reduction of the economic gap between the North and the South of the world, calling it the duty of the rich countries to establish a more just New International Economic Order, and based on the faster development of the poorer countries. Reagan denounced this as an anti-American manoeuvre.
The US is not the same as Montecarlo, as he famously said (probably meaning Monaco, as Montecarlo is not a state), and yet they have a vote each. So, he argued, this democracy coming from the UN was in fact a straitjacket, and the US would proceed on the basis of bilateral relations, and not to be constrained by multilateral mechanisms.
Reagan was the first to talk of “America First”. He, together with Margaret Thatcher in Europe, dismantled all the social progress made in the world after the end of the Second World War.
The market, with its invisible hand, would be the sole engine of society (which Thatcher said does not exist, only individuals). The State, which Reagan called “the beast”, was the first enemy of the citizen. He declared that the most terrifying words in English are: “I am from the Government, and I am here to help”. Any public or social cost was just a brake on the market.
Reagan wanted to privatise even the Ministry of Education: he and Thatcher both left UNESCO as a symbol of disengagement from the UN. Both he and Thatcher curtailed trade unions, privatised whatever possible and started the era of neoliberal globalisation, the effects of which are now widely evident, and which Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and company bless every day, because it has created a very large swathe of disaffected citizens, who believe they will readdress their destiny.
It is important to note that Reagan met with no real opposition from the other rich countries. So, all this fragmentation of the world, with the creation of G7, G8, G20, and other exclusive clubs, was not an exclusive responsibly of Reagan and Thatcher.
For forty years, the process of divesting the UN from its responsibility for the world’s peace, development, and democracy continued. Neoliberal globalisation was based on finance and trade. Even before the end of the war, finance was delegated to the Bretton Woods system, which took its name from the site where it was founded.
Let us just state a fact: the financial system was established in a such way that Finance is the only sector of human activity that has no regulatory body. Today it is clearly separated from the general economy when its original function was to be at its service. And political institutions are unable to control its global structure,
The other engine of globalisation was trade. The United Nations had the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which looked to trade as an instrument of development. The creation in 1995 of the World Trade Organisation, as an independent organisation, envisaging trade as an economic engine, divested the UN from trade too. And the more the UN weakens, the easier it is to decry it shortcomings.
The coup de grace for multilateralism has been the arrival of Trump, the heir and updated version of Ronald Reagan, but with a totally different agenda and vision. His basic idea is not “America First” but “America Alone”. He has pushed Reagan’s idea of bilateralism versus multilateralism to the extreme of ignoring the concept of alliances. Thus, he declared, Europe is even worse than China.
But there is a fundamental difference between them: Trump never pretended to be the president of all Americans. On the contrary, he tried immediately to divide and polarise the United States, and he leaves as a legacy a US that will take a very long time to return to being a united and pacified country. And his strategy has been taken up by several other leaders, from Jair Bolsonaro to Viktor Orban, from Recep Erdogan to Matteo Salvini.
It will therefore be difficult for the UN to recover its function of meeting place, to express plans for global governance, based on democracy and participation. This was a vision based on the lessons learnt in the Second World War: let us avoid millions of deaths, terrible destruction, and to do so we need to work together.
That lesson has been now forgotten. Just compare the kind of political leaders from that time and those of today to see the enormous change. The expression of national egoisms will continue, with the richest countries in exclusives clubs, like the OECD or the G20.
But there is a problem: Those clubs are not efficient, because they bring together countries with very different agendas and priorities. Let us take a good example from the last G20, held in November 2020 under the very discredited chairmanship of Saudi Arabia. One of the points was cancellation of the debt of poor countries, which is evidently urgent because of the additional burden of the pandemic that is going to bring about disproportionate damage. Pope Francis and UN Secretary General António Guterres both pressed for that decision. All that the G20 was able to do was freeze the payment of the interest on the debt for six months.
And here, let us divagate for a useful learning exercise of the Third World Debt, and on the nobility of the rich countries.
If you take a loan that you repay over 20 years at five percent, or a mortgage of 100, at the end you will have repaid 200. And during the first ten years, all you pay is the interest, and only in the second decade do you progressively start to pay back the capital.
The result is that the poor countries have renegotiated their debt several times, and every time what they paid was the interest, before starting all over again. And that interest was cumulative. During that process, they paid the amount of the capital that they received several times over. But all that they paid went to pay interest.
At university you learn one good example of the perversity of cumulative interest. The old story goes that a Dutch settler, Peter Minuit, bought the island of Manhattan from the Algoquin tribe. The price paid was 24 dollars’ worth of beads, trinkets, a jar of mayonnaise, two pair of wooden clogs, a loaf of bread and a packet of Quaker oats. If that amount were put in a loan at five percent with composite interest, it would now be more that the estimated value of all of Manhattan, which exceeds three trillion dollars. So, the decision of the G20 to freeze interests for six months amounts to nothing.
It is interesting to listen to insiders’ voices. The loans of the rich countries are computed in the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), established by the OECD (the organisation that brings together all the rich countries). In the good old days of multilateralism, the OECD engaged to dedicate one percent of members’ GDP to the development of the underdeveloped countries. This engagement was never kept, except for the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. The US never went over 0.3 percent. Anyhow, any debt remission goes into the official statistics of the DAC committee.
But new loans are made by countries which are not on the DAC committee, like China, which has made a very extensive number of loans, especially in Asia and Africa under not exactly transparent conditions. For the OECD countries (basically the West), cancelling their loans could mean unleashing resources that could go to pay back Chinese loans, thus becoming China’s funders. This is a good example of how competing interests block the G20 from concerted actions. [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 January 2021]
* Publisher of OtherNews, Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio is an economist, journalist, communication expert, political commentator, activist for social and climate justice and advocate of an anti-neoliberal global governance. Director for international relations of the European Center for Peace and Development. Adviser to INPS-IDN. He is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency and its President Emeritus.
Image credit: Italian G20 Presidency
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