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[Ana Palacio] Rule-making in a divided world

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 20, 2023 - 05:30

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If anyone had lingering doubts about the fractured state of global rule-making, they should now be dispelled. The just-concluded G-20 summit in New Delhi attracted as much attention for who was not there -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping -- as for the discussions among those who showed up. But the real takeaway from the summit, as well as the gathering of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) that preceded it, is that global rule-making is set to become increasingly uneven, shaped by small groups, swing states, and fluid coalitions.

Even without Putin and Xi, palpable divisions marked the G-20 summit, belying its optimistic theme, “one earth, one family, one future.” While India, which has worked hard to position itself as a unifying diplomatic force and a spokesperson of the Global South, managed to secure consensus on a final declaration, this was no easy feat, owing not least to disagreements over how to refer to the Ukraine war.

The compromises this demanded were reflected in the summit’s final declaration, which featured far softer language on the Ukraine war -- and, in particular, Russia’s culpability -- than the declaration that was issued in Bali last November. In 2022, G-20 leaders acknowledged that perspectives on the invasion differed, but also strongly condemned Russia’s actions and called for the withdrawal of its troops. In 2023, they lamented the “immense human suffering and the adverse impact of wars and conflicts around the world,” issued a pro forma exhortation to abjure the use of nuclear weapons, and touted the hallowed principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity -- all without mentioning Ukraine by name.

Not surprisingly, Russia hailed the declaration, while Ukraine decried it for containing “nothing to be proud of.” Meanwhile, analysts wondered about the potential costs of Western leaders’ decision to accept the watered-down declaration in the name of salvaging the summit.

As for China, deepening global divisions and escalating superpower rivalry likely drove Xi’s decision to skip the summit, though China’s prolonged border dispute with India and its recent economic travails were probably also considerations. For US President Joe Biden, Xi’s absence provided an opportunity to present the United States as a reliable partner to the developing world. But the US pledge to reform the World Bank and increase its lending capacity to $25 billion is likely to ring hollow to low- and middle-income countries.

As for the developing world, it wasn’t left empty-handed. G-20 leaders formally decided to make the African Union, with its 55 member states, a permanent member, thereby putting the AU on equal footing with the European Union. This will go a long way toward amplifying the Global South’s global influence.

The decision to extend a formal invitation to the AU might partly reflect the sense among Western powers that alternative groupings are breathing down their necks. After all, the BRICS bloc, which China is openly attempting to position as a rival to the G-7, had just expanded its ranks to include six new members (Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates).

Much to China’s satisfaction, the longstanding dominance of the G-7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, the US -- plus the EU) does seem to be weakening. While the G-7 still plays a vital role on the world stage, few today would echo US national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s 2022 assessment that it is the “steering committee of the free world.” On the contrary, with the US gearing up for next year’s presidential election, and the EU preoccupied by questions about enlargement and reform, the G-7 appears to lack unity of purpose, which is undermining its traction in world affairs.

This is not to discount the achievements of this year’s G-7 summit, carried out under Japan’s capable leadership. Beyond securing a consensus on both the Ukraine war and China, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida convincingly advocated for combining the transatlantic and Indo-Pacific regions into a single strategic space. More broadly, Japan -- the first to sound the alarm about the military threat posed by China -- has rallied its allies and beefed up its own defenses, all while maintaining a balanced policy stance based on economic realism.

Nonetheless, assessments like that of Princeton’s John Ikenberry -- who hails the G-7 as a “power player,” and argues that, with Biden in the White House, “alliance cooperation across the liberal democratic world has entered a period of remarkable innovation and creativity” -- are probably too sanguine.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated both the fracturing of the world order and countries’ scramble to establish new alignments that can secure their interests. If the G-7 -- whose members comprise less than 10 percent of the world population -- does not clarify its direction, it risks losing its influence, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the values that unite its members.

The G-7’s calls for greater inclusivity and reform of multilateral institutions are well-reasoned and sensible. But they have come late. Only with a combination of political will and geopolitical acumen can Western leaders ensure the survival of a rules-based order that reflects democratic values. In the meantime, the alphabet soup of new global coalitions will continue growing.

Ana Palacio

Ana Palacio, a former foreign minister of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group, is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)