The ‘mantras’ that powered success at the G-20 summit

A look at what was behind the favourable outcomes at Bharat Mandapam, the venue of the summit

September 20, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 07:57 am IST

At the opening session, in New Delhi

At the opening session, in New Delhi | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Reports of the death of multilateralism are greatly exaggerated, it would seem, from the outcomes of the G-20 summit in India, especially the New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration (NDLD). Throughout India’s G-20 presidency, no ministerial meeting had been able to issue a joint statement and the ‘Sherpas’ most closely involved with negotiations said they often thought that they could not bring all the G-20 members on board in the context of the language of the document, especially on the subject of Ukraine. While the Sherpa team methodically whittled away at the language, ensuring a document that was acceptable to all, the government’s bilateral forays succeeded in giving nearly all G-20 members a stake in the success of India’s presidency. In the past year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan, Australia, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, France, South Africa and Indonesia, and hosted leaders of Germany, Italy, Australia and Japan, all members of the G-20 with considerable influence on the process. Regardless of their reasoning, the absence of Russian and Chinese Presidents at the G-20 summit ensured a less fractious gathering, and helped more than hindered. To look at it more broadly, it is India’s policy ‘mantras’ of multilateralism, multipolarity and the “middle way” that won the day at Bharat Mandapam, the venue of the G-20 summit in Delhi.

The multilateralism factor

To begin with, it is clear that the desire to support multilateralism is what drove the concessions made in order to achieve consensus at the G-20. The ‘western bloc’ comprising the G-7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.), the European Union (EU), and U.S. allies Australia and South Korea made the larger part of these concessions by agreeing to the removal of direct pointers to Russia in the operative paragraphs that referred to the war in Ukraine. The only mention of Russia in the statement was a positive one, pertaining to the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and the desire of all members to revive the mechanism that would give Russia more access to the international SWIFT financial system, and, in return, a removal of blocks to Ukrainian grain export.

In public statements, western bloc leaders and officials denied a climbdown, although proffering that the “preservation of G20” was their topmost consideration. Away from the cameras, they said the choice they were given was between agreeing to the statement finalised hours before the summit began, or to send the G-20 process to its “death”. Had there been no joint declaration, questions would have been posed not just to India’s leadership but also on the sustainability of the G-20 itself (one of the only remaining organisations that includes the western bloc, the Russia-China combine, and the “non-aligned” group of India, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Türkiye). The last group is made up of countries that do not approve of the Russian war in Ukraine, but do not join western sanctions. And, coincidentally, nearly all (with the exception of Turkiye), members or observers of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

If New Delhi failed to find consensus at the G-20, the fear was that the G-20 itself would fragment, possibly into the G-7 western bloc, and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bloc. After all, the G-7 has stated its united stand on the Ukraine war, and BRICS (now made up of 11 countries), included a consensus paragraph on the Ukraine war at its summit, managing a joint statement despite the deep India-China tensions. It was equally significant that it was the “Troika-Plus” combine of Indonesia-India-Brazil-South Africa (the first such series of developing countries to be hosts/future hosts of the G-20), which proposed the winning formulation on Ukraine. Indonesia is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair while South Africa is BRICS chair, and their multilateral heft added to their efforts. Japan too, as G-7 chair, played a role in bringing the U.S. and Europe on board. Eventually, the outcome strengthened the G-20 itself as an organisation that has pulled off a consensus two years in a row despite the polarising war in Ukraine. This is no mean feat given that the United Nations Security Council has not been able to forge a single non-vetoed resolution on the Ukraine issue since February 2022.

Support for a multipolar world

The other fillip to the success of the G-20 summit came from the growing support for a multipolar world — one which India has been a leading votary of. It has often been said that in the post-Cold war scenario, the U.S. has tried to build a unipolar world, China has pushed for a bipolar one (where it is the only challenger to America’s leadership of the world and the unrivalled leader of Asia), while India has sought a multipolar world.

The U.S. may remain the most powerful country in the world for the foreseeable future. But it has also given the world a glimpse of what it would mean were it to decline as a global power in the Donald Trump era (2017-2021), as the U.S. walked out of a number of multilateral and UN organisations, as well as the Paris Accord and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement with Iran. With the next U.S. presidential elections in 2024, where Mr. Trump and others with similar worldviews are contenders, it remains to be seen which way Washington will proceed. China’s remarkable rise over the 1990s-2010s has shown that it is a possible rival to the U.S. — Beijing will mark the tenth anniversary of its Belt and Road Initiative at a grand event in October. China’s spending of over one trillion dollars on infrastructure projects in tie-ups with about 90 countries, has given it untrammelled influence in many parts of the world. However, the manner of its rise has also spread discomfort. Its goodwill has been depleted by its actions such as those during the COVID-19 pandemic, its predatory financing of small countries, as well as its aggression toward its neighbours that includes transgressing boundaries with countries that include India.

In geographical terms, the Third Pole refers to the Hindu-Kush Himalayan Region, or upper South Asia, as it has the largest volume of ice and snow outside of the North and South Poles. In development economics, however, it is clear that the Global South is now seen as the third pole, and many global powers are coming to terms with its worth. While the Global South, made up of more than 125 countries, may not compare in wealth with the ‘North’, it is increasingly becoming a voice to be heard — a voice which resets the priorities at the global forum on issues such as development, climate change, health and the digital divide. India’s championing of the Global South, and within it the membership of the 55-nation African Union (AU), was another reason for the desired outcomes at the G-20. What is to be noted is the particular role of regional organisations in multilateral fora after the EU and AU; it will be the turn of ASEAN and the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States (CELAC) to seek G-20 membership.

The middle way

Finally, it is apparent that India’s success at the G-20 owes itself to its decades-old tradition of abjuring alliances and following a “middle path” on global discord. This has meant making compromises at times, such as the Indian government’s refusal to criticise or cut off ties with Russia, or to invite Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to address the G-20. But it has put India in a better position to be able to strike a balance between the Global South and North, and the East and West. It is this bridging role that is most needed in a time of global polarisation, keeping in mind what UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the Delhi summit: “Because if we are indeed one global family, we today resemble a rather dysfunctional one.”

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