In the end, Jakarta’s gamble paid off: the G20 outperformed expectations, even if we must remain realistic about the challenges facing global multilateralism. Indeed, the Bali summit has against the odds consolidated the G20’s self-designation as ‘the premier forum for global economic cooperation’.
Is there anything that can’t be solved by getting away to Bali for a few days?
For months leading up to last week’s G20 Leaders’ Summit, it was hard to say whether expectations for Indonesia’s presidency were too high or too low. Certainly, it appeared plausible that the G20’s decision-making processes would seize up as members divided over Russia’s participation. In the immediate wake of the invasion of Ukraine, it wasn’t outlandish to expect that a leaders’ summit wouldn’t go ahead at all; in this view, the bar for success was merely having the key players show up, regardless of whether anything of substance was achieved.
At the same time, Indonesian President Joko Widodo made a big political bet of his own on the success of the summit — enough that some close to the process worried that the Indonesian public, to whom the government was eager to sell a success story ex ante, weren’t properly prepared for the real possibility that this G20 could be a failure.
After early speculation that the G20 would fracture under geopolitical tensions and cease to exist in its current form at all, a residual question was whether the leaders could possibly reach consensus decisions given the current membership. Key ministerial-level meetings in the lead up to the summit failed on this point; the default scenario seemed that the Bali G20 would make history by being the first to fail to produce a communique.
The summits leading up to the G20, which likewise operate on a consensus basis, set a discouraging precedent: just days earlier the East Asia Summit in Cambodia failed to achieve a consensus declaration, likely thanks to the inherent tensions between its US, Chinese and Russian members on security issues.
Not only was there a negotiated text from Bali, it came in the form not of a chair’s statement or summary but as an official consensus declaration to which all members agreed. Its language about the Ukraine war bears the signs of a hard-argued compromise in the lead up to the summit, containing both severe censure of Russia with acknowledgement of ‘other views’. Russia’s attempts to use the G20 as a platform to show off its influence and legitimacy failed, and the G20 is better off for it.
Even those who deride bodies like the G20 as talkfests acknowledge the spin-off benefits of the sideline dialogues that these events facilitate. In Bali, Xi Jinping and Joe Biden sought to show a worried world that the United States and China can still talk. Both leaders sent the right messages about avoiding conflict and a Cold War; the region awaits policies that actually demonstrate such a commitment. Anthony Albanese became the first Australian prime minister to meet a Chinese head of state since 2016, vindicating his government’s more demure approach to China while wisely avoiding being drawn into a negotiation with Beijing over policy change in exchange for sanctions relief.
That marks two major economic meetings in 2022 that have exceeded expectations. In Geneva in June, the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference (MC12) surprised everybody by showing — by the mere act of agreeing on something of substance — that there’s still life in the beleaguered trade body. In Bali, G20 leaders put their support behind the reform agenda endorsed at MC12: committing to seize and advance the positive momentum to improve its functions, including dispute settlement body reform.