The End of the G-20

Has the Group Outlived Its Purpose?

China's President Xi Jinping attends a news conference after the closing of G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China, September 5, 2016. Damir Sagolj / Reuters

Over Labor Day weekend, the leaders of the G-20 countries gathered in Hangzhou, China, for their annual summit. Their goal this year: save the good name of globalization, which has recently taken a beating. In the wake of Brexit, the U.S. Republican presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, the rise of the European far right, and China’s own anti-Westernism, the G-20 leaders were supposed to renew their commitment to collective economic growth and open cross-border trade and investment.

Trouble is, few of the member countries, including China, are interested in promoting these goals in the short term. The United States’ stance on trade is growing increasingly protectionist. Both presidential candidates oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement on grounds that U.S. workers and industry will come out on the losing end. Chinese investment destinations such as Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Africa are refusing ever more high-profile cross-border deals with Chinese companies, due to purported national security concerns. For its own part, China feels that it is not in a position given the slowdown of its own economy to champion outward-facing policies.

It is ironic, given China’s nearly gaffe-free, luxurious turn as host of the G-20, capped off by a communiqué promising all the right solutions to global problems, that the most important outcome of this summit is that it made abundantly clear that the world needs to re-evaluate the organization’s role. The sort of domestic policy coordination that it regards as a holy grail has severe limits when tested by political and economic realities on the ground. After two days of meetings, and a year’s worth of side meetings between finance ministers and other officials, the Paris Climate Agreement was the only initiative with concrete requirements on which the G-20 could agree. That is a powerful signal that other issues previously imagined as global in nature are in fact not.

Leaders pose for a family picture during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016.
Leaders pose for a family picture during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. Damir Sagolj / Reuters


The tradition of the G-20 summit was established in late 2008

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