The Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, was struck down by Covid, the Argentinian prime minister, Alberto Fernández, had gastroenteritis and the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, either did or did not have chest pains that sent him to hospital. Given that Indonesia’s G20 slogan plastered all around Bali says: “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”, it was not an auspicious performance by the world’s leaders.
Unfortunately, there is precious little sign of recovery at the G20, either at a political or economic level.
The G20, according to Dr Tristen Naylor, an assistant professor of history at Cambridge University, “has worked best historically when there has been a galvanising crisis affecting everyone equally, especially the financial contagion in 2008”.
He said the post-Covid economic recession might have brought the world together again, “but this is not a crisis hitting every country in the same way, so there is no solution on which all sides can agree. Add in the Ukraine war, and the US-Sino tensions over Taiwan, and there is very little oxygen left.”
Although a communique, in preparation for months, will be produced, its focus on issues such as digital transformation, post-Covid recovery and food security is unlikely to stretch beyond the non-committal platitudes that normally fill such statements. Indonesia has tried to keep Ukraine off the agenda by saying the G20 is primarily an economic forum, not a geopolitical security forum. But such distinctions are hard to maintain since the Ukraine war is a “total hybrid war” in which gas prices and the seizure of Russian central bank assets are as much a weapon of war as a high mobility artillery rocket system.
The Argentinian foreign minister, Santiago Cafiero, standing in for his ailing boss, put it well on Tuesday when he told colleagues: “In the northern hemisphere, the merchants of death trade lethal weapons, but in the southern hemisphere, food becomes more expensive or is lacking, and what ends up killing is not bullets or missiles, but poverty and hunger. It seems incredible that, when we have not yet overcome the shock caused by a pandemic, Russia unleashes a military invasion of Ukraine, putting world peace in crisis.”
Kristalina Georgieva, the international monetary fund managing director, agreed: “You can’t solve a problem of geopolitics with economic policy measures. It will be very difficult to bring the level of economic cooperation to the level it should be … Ending the war in Ukraine is the single most powerful factor to turn around the world economy.”
She told the group: “Hopeful signs of recovery last year were replaced by an abrupt slowdown in the world economy because of Covid, the war in Ukraine and climate disasters on all continents.” The difficulty is that to tame inflation, the US needs to raise interest rates, but that strengthens the dollar, making the goods that poorer countries import more expensive.
For Indonesia, laying on a visually sumptuous summit, it was a relief that Vladimir Putin chose to stay away, and the Russian leader’s substitute, Lavrov, did not come into the cavernous conference room to hear the passionate televised address by Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Staged walkouts were avoided, even if the family photo, the annual display of masculine leadership, had to be forgone.
All unhappy families are after all unhappy in their own way, and this family is frankly bordering on the dysfunctional, and will probably remain so until Putin is forced into a retreat, or Moscow rethinks its imperial mission. So much of the interest at the summit has focused on whether the “swing states” in the Ukraine war- India, South Africa, Turkey and China – would put any real pressure on Russia to recognise this war has been a mistake.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, has used the summit as his coming out party after nearly two years in unsplendid Covid isolation, meeting as many as six world leaders. Naylor said he thought Xi went as far as he could to express his displeasure at Putin’s methods and the length of time the war has continued. The behind-the-scenes negotiations on extending the grain deal allowing Russian and Ukrainian wheat to reach world markets was probably the most substantive achievement of the summit, and reflected the fact that the combatants in the war are fighting for the public opinion of the global south as much as themselves.
But whether the G20 will regain its status as a global governance powerhouse, and a more representative successor to the G7 as once predicted, seems unlikely. With breadth comes division, leading to shallowness, and, it seems, the lowest common denominator.
By contrast it is the G7, once thought to be dead on its feet, that has been galvanised. Bound by a common ideology, its leaders met six times remotely before June’s actual G7 summit in Germany. It has, in the view of the US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, become the organising committee for the free world. The G20 has yet to find itself any equivalent status.