G20: A chance for Europe to shape the global order

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Welcome back — and brace yourselves: will we look back at this weekend as the moment that the shape of the next world order, and Europe’s place in it, became clear? That is quite a dramatic contention, I accept . . . Some may wonder if I have spent too long in the sun this week. There is certainly a lingering holiday feel to the debate in London. But not so in Asia.

Exhibit A: India’s prime minister Narendra Modi is hosting the summit of the group of 20 leading economies — minus the leader of the second largest, Xi Jinping, an unfortunate turn of events to which I will return. The Delhi gathering might sadly end in disappointment, accelerating the chances of the world shifting into rivalrous blocs, led by the US and China. But equally it just could resuscitate the G20, reviving its sense of purpose from 15 years ago when it played a critical role in mitigating the fallout of the financial crisis.

Exhibit B: if you were wondering why yet another global summit really matters, turn your gaze even further east for a taste of an alternative world order. Tomorrow Kim Jong-Un, the unpredictable leader of North Korea, as searingly depicted in our Person in the News profile, is expected to meet Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin in Vladivostok. On the agenda is the idea that Kim could replenish Russia’s depleted munitions. That is worrying enough, but the great nightmare is that this is the inaugural meeting of an “axis of autocracies”.

I am Alec Russell, the FT’s foreign editor. I’m all the happier to fill in for Tony Barber this week. My mission is to focus on the fast-changing world order — in particular the rise of ambitious new powers, a phenomenon I have referred to as the à la carte world.

These two summits may seem far from the regular terrain of Europe Express. But this is quite a weekend for Europe. The future of global governance is in flux and yet for the EU and European leaders there is an opportunity this weekend to shape it.

It’s all in a name

Summitry is a nightmare for journalists. I remember covering G7 summits in the early 2000s, frequently wading through communiqués in search of tiny breakthroughs, disagreements or just a story.

That said, this is very different. Those days of a unipolar world are over. Our correspondents have in recent days highlighted what is at stake, not least whether there can be any meaningful agreement between the “west” and the “global south” over tackling climate change and on the war in Ukraine.

Those regional labels are unsatisfactory but they do reflect a distinction between the traditional G7 members and allies, and the rising powers, whether among giant developing economies, such as India and Indonesia, or petrostates in the Gulf. (Any thoughts for better shorthand would be welcome. Do email me, [email protected].)

For India this is a huge moment. Samir Saran, the head of the Observer Research Foundation, a prominent Indian think-tank, wrote recently in the Indian Express a powerful account of what India’s G20 presidency could mean for the developing world. But ahead of the summit it seemed the Sherpas were struggling to find convergence on the big issues.

Modi himself divides opinion. On the one hand he is presiding over a tech and economic superpower of the future. On the other, his government has authoritarian tendencies. I loved the column by our Delhi bureau chief John Reed on whether we should now be calling India “Bharat”. We have not heard the last of this. 

All that said, I have a thought experiment for those keen to see Modi brought down a peg or two this weekend: just think how delighted the leaders at Vladivostok would be if the G20 ended in disarray.

Xi or no Xi

The countdown to the talks was dominated by news that Xi was not going to attend. This was widely seen as a major blow to the G20, and an acceleration of the shift to a world in which a China-led bloc is facing off against a US-led one, with many countries hovering in the middle.

Xi’s absence is certainly a disappointment, not least for European leaders, including Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, who were hoping for rare facetime with the Chinese president. But the assumption — I stress assumption — from western officials who follow China closely is that his decision reflects China’s unwillingness to participate in a possible triumph for its great Asian rival, India, rather than a decisive rejection of the west. India and China, while both standard-bearers for the causes of the global south, are at loggerheads on a host of issues.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Pyongyang in June 2019
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Pyongyang in June 2019 © AP

As for the bleak idea that China is drifting closer to signing up fully with Russia and North Korea, that seems unlikely. More probable is that China will flirt with them when it suits. As one former senior American policymaker reflected, the North Korean-Chinese relationship is very much a marriage of convenience, founded in mistrust — just as Russia’s is with China.

So could it be that there is a silver lining to Xi’s absence? Just possibly yes. If, if, if, Europe and the US can come up with proposals that help assuage the grievances of the global south about the world’s western-dominated architecture, then this may be the summit where the G20 refinds its mojo.

As for Putin’s absence, the specific reason for it, his invasion of Ukraine, is a tragedy. But his non-appearance does at least spare summiteers the nightmare of the 2006 G8 summit in St Petersburg when he kept journalists waiting until 2am before holding a press conference. Early signs of hubris . . .

The hour of Europe

So what should all these European leaders and officials be saying in Delhi? We should bear in mind it is quite an opportunity. Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel may not have the easiest relationship, but the EU has two seats at the table, alongside a roster of European leaders.

This is of course the first chance for the west to respond to the challenge thrown down by a host of rising powers at the summit of the Brics — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — last month. That was dominated by talk of ending the west’s control of the global financial system.

Alex Stubb, the former Finnish prime minister who is running for the presidency, says a new tone but also new policies are essential. The EU has never been “more united, efficient and determined” than since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But, he adds, Europe “won’t be in this unified Utopia for ever” and needs to be thinking fast about its place in the world.

He highlights the carbon border tax which is seen in the global south as a protectionist measure. “We can close the door or we can keep the door open. We live in a world where the things supposed to bring us together like trade or technology or currency can be used to tear us apart.”

I would recommend a paper by the European Council on Foreign Relations on what the continent could do to “get real” with the global south. It was published in June but it stands the test of time. In particular the authors backed calls for the African Union to join the G20. They also made a cogent argument for pushing for fundamental reform of the Bretton Woods institutions. Both in my view are essential.

I caught up this week with Charles Grant, the director of Centre for European Reform, for the first time since I commissioned him to write op-eds for the FT during the eurozone debt crisis. Bear in mind, he notes, that while just about everyone in the EU is in favour of multilateralism, given the war in Ukraine and the focus on EU enlargement it is not top of people’s minds.

That said, he highlights a growing awareness of a need to rethink the continent’s relationship with the global south, including a shift from talk of human rights, reflecting a perceived need to move away from contrasting democracies and autocracies. “Even more than a year ago people were saying we need to give them [the global south] more of what they want: more visas, student exchanges and more infrastructure investment…” Could, he wonders, more be made of the “Global Gateway”? In theory this is the EU’s answer to China’s belt & road initiative but it has a very low profile.

As for the Bretton Woods institutions, he too thinks it’s long overdue that “the ridiculous rule that a European has to run the IMF” is jettisoned. I quite agree. Surely now really is the time.

A last word on surviving summits

My iconoclastic advice to reporters in Delhi: don’t spend all your time in the briefing room but get out and see India’s capital. Arguably my finest summitry decision was in 2004 when two colleagues and I broke ranks and escaped the White House “bubble” in Istanbul to see the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I remember those monuments rather more clearly than I do the details of the closing summit statement.

More on this topic

“The west has failed to keep its promises on aid” — Adam Tooze on Europe’s failings in the Sahel region, and more broadly sub-Saharan Africa.

Alec’s picks of the week

  • Eleanor Olcott’s account of how one of the student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests escaped and went on to make a fortune in the US. It is beautifully written, soulful and captures that moment when China’s political future hung in the balance — a time I remember so well, as it was the coverage of the massacre that inspired me to dream of being a foreign correspondent.

  • “The Battle of the Spies”, the latest episode of Anita Anand and Willie Dalrymple’s Empire podcast. Appropriately enough it focuses on Napoleon’s hopes for a deal with the then Russian Tsar to mount a joint invasion of India and to oust the British empire. Yes, this weekend is merely the latest instalment of the long running story of the global order hanging in the balance.

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