Finance ministers from the Group of 20 are scheduled to gather for the first time in 2015 early next month in Istanbul. It will be an important meeting for them. They will be showing the world whether they should be taken seriously.
In November, the G20 gave Washington an ultimatum: ratify the four-year-old agreement to overhaul the International Monetary Fund or else. Washington ignored the threat. It is unclear if the new Republican-led Congress has any interest in the issue. IMF reform could be dead unless someone displays an extraordinary commitment to revive it. Major changes at the IMF require the support of members controlling 85 per cent the votes. As the largest shareholder, the U.S. commands more than 17 per cent, an effective veto. Washington literally is an anchor on the desire of the rest of the world to move forward.
Somehow the G20 has escaped any blame for this situation. In 2010, after an aggressive push led by the United States, the IMF's members agreed to double the institution's capital to $720-billion (U.S.) and to increase the voting shares of big emerging markets to reflect their growing importance. As the "premier" body for organizing global economic affairs, the G20 said the IMF overhaul would be passed by September, 2012. The failure to deliver is a blow to the group's credibility. Its response to Washington's snub will say a great deal whether its members are willing to stand behind their directives.
The G20's instructions to the IMF if the U.S. failed to ratify were "stand ready with options for next steps." Managing director Christine Lagarde has been silent on what those steps could be, an indication that there is no easy way of overcoming the veto of her largest shareholder. She nevertheless will be exploring options with her advisers this month and the issue promises to rank high on the agenda in Istanbul. There may be technocratic ways forward.
Edwin Truman, a former U.S. Treasury official who now is senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, has proposed a multistep Plan B that ultimately would require the Obama administration to unilaterally give up the U.S. veto. There could be another way. The G20 could commit to engage Congress directly. Abstract threats of the U.S. losing face in the world have had no effect on lawmakers; old-fashioned political engagement might.
The first thing the G20 must do is move beyond relying on the Obama administration to make the case for IMF reform. Too many Republicans have made denying the President a point of principle. Clay Lowery, another former Treasury official who now is a vice-president at Rock Creek Global Advisors, thinks Republicans would be more receptive to fellow conservatives. Before his death earlier this year, Jim Flaherty, Canada's former finance minister, made a point of visiting the Capitol when he was in Washington. Republican lawmakers were welcoming of a fellow conservative. Mr. Flaherty's successor, Joe Oliver, could do the same, as should officials from conservative governments in countries such as Australia, Germany and the U.K.
With each visit, G20 officials could forcefully challenge the rationale for Republican resistance. This should be an easy task. Hardliners say they object to committing more money to the IMF, a moot point as the U.S. contribution to the capital increase would come from closing an existing line of credit. Some Republicans complain that European countries have too much say over the fund's decisions even as they block changes that would dilute Europe's influence. And they defend their actions by portraying themselves as the protectors of the U.S. veto at the IMF when there is no attempt to take it away.
It would be naive to assume that reason would be enough to change Congress's mind. The politicians of the G20 need to change the politics around IMF reform. The intellectual case for IMF reform should be buttressed by a demonstration of the G20's willingness to go forward without the blessing of the United States. The IMF could proceed immediately with its next review of the allocation of shares, declining U.S. input until Congress approves the 2010 changes. The G20 could encourage the IMF to use ad hoc arrangements to get around the U.S. veto. Republicans dislike the IMF's role in bailouts in Europe, forgetting the fund's efforts to stabilize economies in the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean and Ukraine. Mr. Lowery thinks the sight of the U.S. losing influence in an important instrument of foreign policy could focus some minds.
The final step will be giving House Speaker John Boehner a way to save face. The G20 also must apply pressure on Mr. Obama and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. The President is seeking commercial and security agreements in Europe and Asia. He wants help isolating Russia. There is an opportunity to extract a commitment from the White House that if it wants a win on the international front, it will have to give up something at home to get IMF reform through Congress. Mr. Obama takes credit for initiating the IMF reforms, yet he has shown a surprising willingness to allow this effort to stall. He needs a reason to act. The members of the G20 should provide him one.
Kevin Carmichael is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, based in Mumbai.