The G20 summit, held in New Delhi on the 9 and 10 September 2023 under the theme “One Earth · One Family · One Future”, brought together decision-makers from 19 of the world’s most developed economies along with the European Union. In the midst of rising inflation, the ongoing repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s summit was particularly anticipated. Crucially, the grouping welcomed the African Union as a permanent member, thereby improving the G20’s representation. Standing as a cornerstone of the multilateral architecture, this annual intergovernmental forum has to contend with the growing influence of non-Western developing countries. Some are rightfully demanding a seat at the table, others choose to ignore this institution, and others still seek to displace the grouping entirely and replace it with alternative venues such as the BRICS summit. The G20 cannot afford to neglect the evolution it requires in order to enhance its legitimacy on international governance and truly take on a leading role on major global issues such as climate change.
The G20 format emerged in response to past crises, with its inaugural meeting taking place in response to the 2008 global financial and economic crisis. The 2023 summit perpetuated this somber tradition, taking place amidst high geopolitical tensions worldwide, most notably steadily degrading relations between the United States and China, as well as war in Europe. In this complex context, existing international organizations are struggling to provide effective frameworks for dialogue and cooperation, especially given persistent criticism over their perceived Western bias.
In this regard, the absence of both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin from this year’s summit signaled the limits of international consensus building. The Chinese leader’s decision not to attend, shortly after his omnipresence at the BRICS summit in early September in Johannesburg, raised concerns about his country’s strategic retreat from the traditional international diplomacy and its reorientation towards countries of the South. His absence also reflected the strained relations between China and India, which were further highlighted in a portion of the G20 final declaration regarding territorial integrity. Putin’s absence was perhaps less surprising. It showed his reluctance to engage with global peers directly as he continues to wage a war of aggression that has had negative externalities for many, if not most, of the grouping’s members.
Moreover, achieving consensus on contentious issues such as the Ukraine conflict, climate change, and economic subsidies proved difficult. In a positive turn of events, the final declaration of the 2023 summit managed to garner unanimous support from all member countries. However, this consensus was obtained at the cost of significant compromise. In particular, the final declaration omitted any specific reference to Russia’s role as an aggressor in the Ukraine conflict, a departure from the previous year’s declaration. While some, including EU officials and the U.S. Secretary of State, defended this wording, others, like the Ukrainian foreign ministry, found it inadequate.
The United States and EU saw unanimity as a strategic imperative, considering it was necessary for the G20’s core function as an international forum for dialogue and cooperation. India was similarly attached to securing consensus as it believed it would enhance its international standing as an effective powerbroker. However, some commentators have since questioned this prioritization of consensus at all costs and worry that this lowest common denominator approach weakens the grouping’s final decisions, as illustrated with the wording on Ukraine this year. The expansion of the G20 to include the African Union, with statements on Ukraine appearing watered down, has therefore raised doubts about the group’s continued cohesion. That’s to say nothing of divisions within the institutions already participating in the grouping. For instance, the summit highlighted infighting within the European Union, as top-level European officials only attended one meeting together and engaged with Chinese Premier Li Qiang separately.
Given the scale and scope of the biggest challenges of the 21st century, international cooperation remains essential. This is particularly true when addressing environmental, climate, and biodiversity crises. The “One Earth” session at the G20 summit underscored the urgent need for collective action. Head of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen reminded summit attendees that G20 countries contribute 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, while a region like Africa that is severely affected by climate change only produces less than 4% of such emissions.
In reaction to this pressing state of affairs, G20 countries committed to increasing the use of renewable energy, calling for a threefold increase in the deployment of these energy sources by 2030. However, leaders in New Delhi failed to generate strong and tangible climate commitments. French President Emmanuel Macron did not mince his words and described the results on climate as “insufficient”. He “alerted everyone” to the need to set more ambitious targets, calling for a “much faster exit from coal”, as early as 2030, but also “as quickly as possible from oil”, “well before 2050”. He added that he worries about the “too-easy discourse that is taking hold among certain emerging countries, to say that only the richest countries have a responsibility”, illustrating the challenge of unity between rich and emerging countries on the climate issue. This raises the stakes for the upcoming COP28 to deliver more actionable results, although questions remain about the United Arab Emirates’ ability to drive the required level of ambitious progress.
Lack of results on the urgent matters relating to the environment highlights the implementation challenges facing the G20. Just like the grouping’s expanding membership has resulted in shallower final declarations, the still expanding scope of topics the G20 deals with has further diluted the measures it issues. This year’s summit declaration, comprising over 13,000 words, contrasts with the concise 3,000-word declaration from the London G20 summit of 2009.
The G20 has proven valuable as an informal international forum for agenda-setting on various global issues. However, as it now stands, it is not an effective global governance institution. Given its inability to offer tangible solutions to the pressing global challenges with which its members are faced, the G20 is in need of reform. The challenge there being that any improvements to ensure more effective global responses need to account for the grouping’s lack of legally binding cooperation mechanisms.
Moreover, the continued rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and their increasing influence, emphasized by the six countries that joined the grouping earlier this year, potentially challenges the status of the G20 as the most legitimate forum for global governance. Xi Jinping’s absence from the G20 summit after playing a significant role at the BRICS meeting clearly highlighted Beijing’s intention to promote one forum’s legitimacy over the other.
That being said, non-Western voices are gaining prominence within the G20, a fact underpinned by the African Union’s admission as well as by Brazil’s continued efforts to involve more of Latin America. This shift in geopolitical dynamics reflects the growing influence of non-Western developing countries and somewhat undermines China or Russia’s arguments attacking the G20 over lack of representation.
While some revisionist countries call its legitimacy into question, the G20 remains a valuable forum to coordinate global responses to the challenges of the 21st century’s changing geopolitical landscape. Its ability to adapt and effectively address those challenges will determine its continued relevance and impact in shaping the future of international governance. As non-Western voices gain prominence and countries like Russia or China promote their own venues and formats, the G20 will have to continue to evolve to meet the needs of our interconnected world.