NEW YORK—On the eve of the international political conference in Pittsburgh known as the Group of 20, President Barack Obama addressed a packed main hall of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Making his first appearance before the international diplomatic and peacekeeping body, Obama stressed that expectations of global cooperation now drive American foreign policy.
"In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero sum game," he said. "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold. The traditional division between nations of the south and north makes no sense in an interconnected world."
After eight years of unilateralism under George W. Bush, the message of outreach and inclusion was received with enthusiastic applause. But as Obama lands in Pittsburgh, it's worth remembering that until recently, a smaller, more elite group of eight countries dominated global discussion. Leaders from those nations will have their own meetings during the two-day conference devoted to climate change, nuclear security and restabilizing the global economy. Yet it’s almost guaranteed that you'll hear more about the G20 than the G8. Suddenly, the organization, created in 1975, is "no longer the board of directors of the world," but a more inclusive organization, said David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal, while addressing the Council on Foreign Relations last week.
But just when did the G8 become the G20?
Originally, the G8 was the Group of 7—which included finance ministers from the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. In 1998, it became the G8 for "political reasons," according to former President Bill Clinton. The massive and resurgent Russian Federation could no longer be credibly excluded from the debate. Similarly, says Clinton, the dozen other countries at this week's G20 gathering have earned a seat at the table by representing the increasingly diverse elements of a more interdependent world order. "It's not a bipolar world, as it was during the Cold War, not a polar world, as it was briefly in the aftermath of the Cold War," Clinton told The Root.
The first informal meeting of an expanded group of major powers was in 1998, when Clinton convened 22 nations in Washington in the aftermath of that year’s brief financial crisis. The short-lived G33, including many countries that are now part of the European Union, was conceived shortly thereafter—and the G20 had its first meeting in Berlin in late 1999. The new configuration, primarily focused on financial and economic coordination, added representation from Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia—and finally included major developed economies like South Korea and Australia.
Today, Turkey is a portal to the Middle East and “a bulwark against Islamic extremism,” according to Clinton. Economic growth in Argentina, Mexico, China and South Africa has transformed world trade; and partnership with major emitters in Asia and oil producers like Saudi Arabia are critical to moving forward on a heated debate on global climate change. “Sooner or later China and India were going to be at every meeting anyway,” adds Clinton. "These 20 have a lot of the world’s GDP, and a lot of the world's best ideas."
"It's a maturing, a transition," says Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I think people realized that these were countries of great importance and economic strength, and it's going to take a larger universe to solve some of these problems." Rev. Jesse Jackson welcomes the development as a statement about rights and equality. "I think it makes a world of sense," he said while attending the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. "You've brought Africa to the table; you have more poor people represented."
Some think it was the financial crisis that precipitated an expanded world order. The full Group of 20 has formally met only a handful of times, with accelerating participation after the September 2008 global financial market failures. “It's obviously easier to have a global consensus when people are scared, as they were in London," says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the international Monetary Fund (IMF), referring to the panicked G20 meetings of late 2008 and early 2009. Then, the larger body was able to make strong, coordinated moves toward rescuing the global economy, pledging together $2 trillion in stimulus funding and launching a $20 billion food security initiative geared at building capacity and stopping hunger among developing nations.
The banking crisis could push 25 million worldwide into joblessness, and 1 billion into poverty before the end of 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But there are a host of truly international problems, outlined by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during his address to the UN, that require a more democratic approach: the spread of nuclear weapons; the rights of women and girls; catastrophic climate change. Obama seemed to reinforce that message in his speech: "This body was founded on the belief that the nations of the world could solve their problems together," he said, going on to quote President Franklin Roosevelt: “The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party, or one nation …. It cannot be a peace of large nations—or of small nations. It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world.”
But that's not quite true, either. Even as international politics catch up with the economic and cultural globalization of the 21st century, the new problem may be the legitimacy of the G20. Naturally, the United States, China, India, Brazil and Russia are the heavy hitters of the 21st century. After all, if only these four nations changed their behaviors to match the energy efficiency of Japan, it would bring the entire planet 25 percent of the way toward its climate change goals.
But nations like Egypt, Israel, Nigeria, Kenya and even Iran certainly have a claim to influence as well. The ever-shifting balance of power may be cause to revisit the dynamic in another 50 years. "Will it last? I don't know," says Strauss-Kahn. "We obviously need a body where this kind of global cooperation can take place. … Twenty is more than seven, but it’s less than the 186 countries I have in the IMF."
Even the United Nations is experiencing an internal conversation about how best to make decisions for an enormous planet facing challenges that require teamwork. Indeed, according to a recent Brookings Institution report, "the President’s desire for a stronger role at the UN will inevitably lead to calls for him to state America’s position on Security Council reform." This debate replicates the dynamic that has taken the G8 out of commission. Critics argue that the 15-member Security Council should be updated for a new century, new threats and new alliances, and that powers excluded when the UN was founded in 1948 such as Germany, and populous states like Brazil, India and South Africa should be given permanent seats on the council. Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi—ironically, this year's beneficiary of the Security Council's rotating membership policy—tore up the UN charter while addressing the body, in seeming protest of the UN bureaucracy.
At the same time, bilateral relations between the United States and China are increasingly prominent. On issues from global finance to climate change, the two massive economic and military powers can seem like the only guests in the room. At the Clinton Initiative, delegates spoke of a "G2" that would lead on climate change. Kerry told a special forum on U.S. / China business relations that “there isn’t going to be an agreement” at the pivotal December climate conference without both nations. And at Obama's two and a half hour bilateral meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao—the longest of any such meeting in New York—the two leaders agreed to project "demonstrable solidarity" on the issue of North Korea and Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons, according to a senior administration official.
No matter how many new powers are sitting around the table in Pittsburgh, one thing is certain: President Obama will be sitting at its head. The week of flurried diplomatic activity suggests that his approach to the new norm will be cooperative. As he said before the UN Wednesday, “the future America wants … we can only reach if we recognize that all nations have rights, but all nations have responsibilities as well.”
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.