Below peak performance

The recently concluded 15th G20 summit, the first to be held virtually on account of the Covid-19 pandemic, offered indications that the world is looking beyond its sole superpower to achieve the founding goal of inclusive global growth. Nominally hosted by Saudi Arabia, the summit was better noted for the actions or lack of them by the president of the United States. Donald Trump delivered a perfunctory opening statement at 8 am local time. The statement spoke of “the need to work together to restore strong economic growth and jobs as we overcome the Covid-19 pandemic”. He also mentioned that he was looking forward to working with the G20 leaders for a long time, a statement that was omitted from the official White House release but picked up by the media. That was, of course, an indication of his unwillingness to accept Joe Biden’s victory in the recent presidential elections and a rather large faux pas since most G20 leaders (except Russia) had already congratulated the new president-elect.

The contrast with the first G20 heads of government summit in Washington in November 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis was stark. Then President George W Bush, like Mr Trump a lame duck president, had not only hosted the event but his outgoing administration led the G20’s agenda for the fight against money laundering and illegal global flows to be taken forward under the presidency of his successor Barack Obama. This time, the US has been among the major countries afflicted by Covid-19, yet Mr Trump absented himself from the side session to discuss joint action on the Covid-19 crisis, preferring instead a round of golf. It is possible that Mr Trump saw little reason to attend this session since an emergency e-summit of G20 leaders in March had already committed to injecting more than $5 trillion into the global economy and contribute to the World Health Organization solidarity response fund. Mr Trump announced in May that he would withdraw funding from the WHO for its slow response to the pandemic. That apart, his administration’s efforts to include the term “Wuhan virus” in the wording of the summit’s March statement to fulfil his agenda of blaming China for the virus, were rejected.

Digital diplomacy has its limitations, not least because it deprives attendants the opportunity for critical meetings on the side lines and breakout sessions, which allow for more meaningful discussion, and it is unclear from the concluding statement how much this summit achieved in furthering the global agenda. This would hopefully change as the world returns to normalcy. Meanwhile, India has postponed by a year its turn to host the summit from 2022 to 2023. This marks the second postponement by New Delhi. Originally scheduled for 2021, India had requested a postponement to 2022 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of independence, to which the G20 secretariat had agreed. This second postponement, which involves swapping places with Indonesia, has been announced without explanation from South Block. Perhaps the fact that this summit will take place a few months ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections may have something to do with the rescheduling. However, India’s real standing on the global stage will depend on how strongly it emerges from the pandemic-induced downturn.


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