In a world awash in a string of G groupings, what's the G20's comparative advantage?
First, it's a summit of leaders, a forum for heads of government to talk directly to, and get to know, each other. Ministers represent interests of particular portfolios; the biggest global deadlocks now require tradeoffs across, rather than within, portfolios. Only leaders can trade apples for oranges or, given their size, watermelons and pumpkins.
Second, the G20 brings together all the top 20 countries that count. The G8, for example, excludes two of the three Asian giants (China and India). So, too, does the United Nations Security Council (India and Japan are not permanent members). Three other significant regional Asia-Pacific actors also are not present in either of these two forums of global governance: Australia, Indonesia and South Korea. Other continents and regions are similarly unrepresented in both forums, despite regionalized politics being an increasingly significant reality of international affairs.
Third, the G20 was meant to be for only those countries that count. This principle has been already breached with membership being closer to 30 than 20, to its cost in cohesiveness and effectiveness. Too many other regional and international organizations have pushed their way to sit at an overcrowded table. The UN and the G20, for example, are different and complementary institutions. What's the point in having the UN Secretary-General attend the G20? He's the world's top international civil servant when the UN's real masters are its member states. The top 20 countries account for more than 80 per cent of the world's population, income and trade and, therefore, collectively dominate all international organizations anyway.
This is not to say that the G20 is more important than the UN. The G20 may falter and fall by the wayside and be dispensed with. Not so the UN: It remains the indispensable international organization. The G20 and the UN are different and should be kept apart and in a mutually supportive relationship, not merged to cross-infect each other with their respective weaknesses. Similar comments apply to other organizations and self-invited guests. When leaders rediscover numeracy, they'll keep the G20 down to 20 national leaders, and no one else, but backed by extensive and genuine outreach and consultation.
Fourth, the G20 is informal. Notes need not be taken, there's no official record (although a communiqué is issued), leaders talk to each other on a first-name basis in a relaxed setting, there's no formal agenda, and there's no secretariat. This comparative advantage also will be diluted and risk being lost if the number is not restricted to a maximum of 20.
The world media may judge this week's Seoul summit to be a success or failure on whether currency arrangements and exchange rates are tackled successfully, if at all. But the true test of the G20 will be whether it raises or lowers the comfort level among the world's top 20 leaders.
ASEAN offers a great model. Distrust, rancour and suspicion have given way to a remarkable degree of comfort and mutual confidence among the original ASEAN five (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). ASEAN has also been the key instrument for integrating Australia and New Zealand - the two European outposts on the outer fringes of the region - into the neighbourhood. Lately, it's been trying to do the same with China and India. If the G20 can scale this achievement of building confidence and trust among leaders up to the global level, it will have more than justified its creation.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo and co-author of Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey .