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A man walks past illuminated hoarding featuring the G20 India summit logo along a roadside in New Delhi on Sept. 6, ahead of the event's commencement.ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Samson is the president of CIGI and a former co-chair of a G20 working group on the global economy.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. G20 summits between the world’s most powerful countries were intended to enable leadership and action on key global issues; now, they are largely seen as a soon-forgotten annual gathering and photo-op.

There is no shortage of currents undermining the G20; the war in Ukraine and a fundamental, intensifying rivalry between the United States and China are only the most obvious, effectively freezing much international co-operation. Greater fragmentation is propelling insular thinking around the world, and this isolationism is only raising the risk of more conflict. The United Nations and other multilateral organizations have also struggled with reforms driven by green, digital, and demographic transformations. And last week, ahead of this weekend’s gathering in Delhi, the BRICS bloc – which includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – expanded into six more emerging markets, with the explicit aim of providing a counterpoint to the G7 countries, in pursuit of their own narrower interests.

Future historians may look back on 2023 as the year when the world became fully multipolar. Where does the G20 fit in, in such a world?

India has held excellent preparations for the summit, and it has been an auspicious year to host it. It is now the world’s most populous nation; its youth is driving the fastest-growing economy in the G20, and it recently demonstrated its technological prowess in space by landing a spacecraft on the moon. India has also used its G20 year to take the stage as a champion for developing countries, promoting issues such as digital public infrastructure and climate finance – both key ingredients for equity and sustainability in international development. But given the dynamics, it would be unwise to expect much progress to emerge from the Delhi summit itself. If a leaders’ declaration is issued at all, it won’t be substantive. Even the prospect of key bilateral meetings is diminished this year due to the absence of Xi Jinping. Last year, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Indonesia, an important and overdue bilateral meeting took place between U.S. President Joe Biden and Mr. Xi; this year, the Chinese President is skipping this summit, seemingly with the intent of lessening the profile of Indian leadership.

Still, there is no real alternative to what the G20 offers. There is no other grouping of countries representing two-thirds of the world’s population and almost 80 per cent of global GDP. The G20 collectively carries a great deal of heft and responsibility, and the need for global leadership has never been higher.

And there are more challenges immediately ahead. In 2024 and 2025, the G20 presidency will rotate to Brazil and then South Africa, two countries that have made reforming the global system a primary ambition. But to go beyond empty rhetoric, those countries will need to ensure buy-in from the most advanced economies on a common vision for meaningful co-operation on key global issues. A G20 with a renewed direction has a role in achieving this.

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One possible future would be for the G20 to focus on a limited set of shared global challenges such as climate change, international trade and transformative technologies, including artificial intelligence. While each of these areas contains elements of self-interest and national competition, they also comprise clear elements of common global interest – inequality, in particular.

Success hinges on whether the various G20 working groups, ministerial meetings, civil society voices and other stakeholders can be harnessed to rally around critical priorities. More controversially, the G20 would need to drive concrete actions through organizations such as the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change and the World Trade Organization, which are caught up in political machinations (to no great effect) with their own siloed processes and watered-down outcomes.

Canada, meanwhile, can help drive a new vision as it seeks to refine its role in the evolving multipolar world. Lacking a more substantive focus for its international efforts, Canada currently struggles to be taken seriously in more global conversations than we care to admit. But many countries still see Canada – which has far less geopolitical baggage than most Western allies – as a credible support in defining common global interests and framing international co-operation.

The truth is that Canada is a robust middle power. We should stop viewing ourselves as a “small country” with a passive role. There is an opportunity for Canada, as it prepares to host the G7 in 2025, to be pro-active and lead a renewed conversation around the importance of these gatherings of global leaders. That opportunity should be seized.

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