Towards a More Bound-Together World
Towards a More Bound-Together World
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine
Op-Ed / Global

Towards a More Bound-Together World

Will the world be more tightly bound together in 20 years from now or less?

Looking back two decades, the pace and intensity of global interaction have surpassed the predictions of even the most globally minded, and there is no strong ground for believing that trend will reverse over the next two decades. The ideological and geopolitical divides of the twentieth century look mostly now irrelevant. Economic interdependence is becoming ever more inescapable, innovation in communications technology seems unstoppable, and “problems without passports” are forcing cooperation among nations. Some of those problems-resonating across borders and posing challenges beyond the capacity of even the most powerful states to solve alone-remain alarmingly huge: not least coping with the current global economic meltdown, meeting the challenge of climate change, and setting the world on the path to eliminating the one class of weapons that is capable of destroying it. But as big as they are, there is more reason for optimism than pessimism that concerted action by key policymakers across a more tightly bound-together world will eventually tame them.

Of course new geopolitical tensions, mainly associated with the inexorable rise of Asia, will replace the old. Free-market ideology will take quite some time to recover the attraction it had pre-Lehman Brothers, and there will be strong policy divisions about the nature and extent of government intervention. For the foreseeable future, in many different economic and security contexts, national pride and identity are going to act as counterweights to the urge to cooperate in the common interest. All the familiar barriers to the take-up of global public goods of different kinds are going to long remain obstacles: the urge to preserve sovereignty, differing preferences, the attractions of free riding,the need for weakest-link compliance, and dependence on the summation of multiple individual efforts.

But for all that there is plenty of evidence of a growing urge to find cooperative solutions to common problems, and no sign of that trend abating. Examples abound in economic and social policy, but I will focus for present purposes on my own area of peace and security. There has been, since the end of the Cold War, an extraordinary reduction in the number of wars (defined as conflicts causing more than 1,000 battle deaths per year) as well as in battle deaths and incidents of mass killing-close to an 80 percent decrease in each case. Counterintuitive as this may seem to almost any daily news consumer, the statistics have been amply and credibly documented by the Human Security Report Project. And while disease and malnutrition are still bigger killers than battle deaths themselves, the numbers of people dying violently in conflicts worldwide is-for the first years of the 21st century-measurable in the low tens of thousands, compared to hundreds of thousands throughout most of the second half of the 20th century. A number of factors have contributed to this, including an end to decolonization wars and proxy wars fuelled by the Cold War superpowers. A large part of the explanation, however, is the huge increase in cooperative peacemaking, peacekeeping, and postconflict peace-building activity since the early 1990s, with the UN and regional organizations playing a crucial role.

One of the most intriguing and encouraging of all recent peace and security developments has been the rapid development of a new global normative consensus that mass atrocity crimes occurring within state boundaries are not just internal matters. There is not much left of the mind-set that had prevailed for centuries that genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity, as well as war crimes committed in a civil war context, were really nobody else’s business. The concept of “the responsibility to protect” , born in the report of that name by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001, emerged in response to the catastrophic failure of the international community to respond with any consensus or effect to the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, and was unanimously adopted by more than 150 heads of state sitting as the UN General Assembly at the 2005 World Summit. The core idea is that the primary responsibility to protect against mass atrocity crimes is that of the sovereign state itself, but when it manifestly fails to exercise that responsibility, because of either incapacity or ill-will, that responsibility shifts to the wider international community to respond with whatever action is necessary, up to and including coercive military action in extreme cases. Much still needs to be done to ensure the effective implementation of the new norm in practice-as the case of Darfur amply demonstrates-but no government can be heard to argue these days that sovereignty is a license to kill.

A good part of the reason for this normative shift, more than any overdue acknowledgement of the moral obligations that should flow from our common humanity, is the pragmatic recognition that states that cannot or will not stop internal atrocities are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, the trafficking of drugs and people, and the spread of health pandemics and other global disasters.

Yet complacency is clearly premature. From the violent wars that fractured 20th-century Europe to the present-day financial crisis, recent history has provided stark lessons that significant interdependence is no guarantor of collective security, physical or financial. Many of the institutions in which we have invested responsibility for today’s most pressing global questions are manifestly not fit for the purpose. If the urge to cooperate is to translate into effective international cooperation in practice, then some significant institutional renovation is going to be necessary, in three areas in particular.

The first is the UN Security Council, the only international body with full, accepted executive decision-making authority and one which is absolutely crucial for the maintenance of global peace and security. Yet its composition, together with the veto powers vested in its five permanent members, far more reflects the power realities of 1945 than those of the 21st century. If it remains unreconstructed and unreformed, it is only a matter of time-perhaps ten or fifteen years at best-before its credibility and authority will diminish to dangerous levels in the eyes of most of the world.

The second big international need is to continue the evolution and strengthening of regional organizations, from the highly advanced and sophisticated such as the European Union, to the important but still only partially developed, such as the African Union and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to the barely functioning, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Despite their origins in economic cooperation, they have very important roles to play in peace and security issues, and will need to take up more of the burden in this respect in the future. In most cases, they are likely to have a better understanding of local dynamics, a greater sense of ownership of the problem, and to operate more cost effectively than a global body. Unfortunately, strong, coherent regional institutions around the world remain merely works in progress.

The third, and most immediately important deficit in international institutional architecture is in the area of what might be described as global policy formulation. What is needed is a broadly accepted center that will consolidate ideas, debate options, and formulate policy conclusions that have an inherent credibility and momentum and universal take-up potential, not only for economic policy but for social policy and peace and security policy as well. The G8 (United States, Canada; France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom; Japan; Russia) has long had aspirations to play that role, but its composition prevents it from being seen as a legitimate policy leader. Its recent willingness to expand a portion of its meetings to embrace the ‘Outreach Five’ (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa) has been seen by many as more patronizing than generous and constructive.

The best available practical solution would seem to lie in the evolution of the G20, from a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors in 1999 to an all-purpose global policy formulation and advocacy body, meeting regularly at the head-of-government level, as it did for the first time in November 2008. While there will always be arguments about who is in and who is out, it is easier to manage the evolution of an existing body than the creation of a brand new one. And the present G20 structure (United States, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico; France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom; Russia; China, India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia; Saudi Arabia; South Africa), does incorporate all major regions, some 80 percent of world trade, 85 percent of global GNP and roughly two thirds of the world’s population. It is just small enough to make decisions, but large enough to be genuinely representative-encompassing all, or nearly all, of the world’s major and emergent strategic and economic powers. The second meeting of the G20 leaders, scheduled for April 2009, will be an early test of the effectiveness of this configuration, but should not be seen as a decisive one: multilateral institution building is never accomplished overnight.

Members of the police stand in front of banners of the G20 summit near a venue for the G20 Finance Ministers Meeting in Nusa Dua on Indonesia's resort island of Bali, on July 14, 2022. Sonny Tumbelaka/Pool via REUTERS
Commentary / Global

Toward a Common Set of Signals from the G20 about Russia’s War in Ukraine

The G20 countries’ positions on the war in Ukraine contrast starkly, yet the conflict raises issues of global concern – economic shocks and nuclear risks – that the leaders cannot pass over in silence.

When the Group of Twenty (G20) leaders gather in Bali, Indonesia, on 15 November, one head of state who belongs to the Group will be notable by his absence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided not to attend the event. This news will be a relief for Western participants, who hardly want to share photo opportunities with Putin while he pursues his war in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, will be in Bali, but he may not be relishing the prospect. Lavrov walked out of a G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in July after his Western counterparts accused Russia of sparking the global food price crisis by invading its grain-producing neighbour.

Putin’s absence will not relieve the leaders who go to Bali of the challenge of how to address the war. The G20 is primarily an economic coordination mechanism, which was thrust into the limelight during the global financial crisis in 2008. Unlike the G7, which brings together like-minded Western countries with shared political interests, the G20 encompasses geopolitical rivals – the U.S. and China foremost among them – that are not apt to adopt strong common positions on international affairs. Yet Russia’s assault on Ukraine raises issues of global concern, including the widespread food and energy price shocks and the risks of nuclear weapons use, that the world’s most powerful politicians cannot pass over in silence.

The G20 meeting is, therefore, an opportunity for leaders to signal common positions about the war. Their primary focus should be on concrete commitments by the G20 countries to help poorer ones navigate economic turmoil. But the powers present in Bali could also use the occasion to underscore that they all expect Russia to refrain from nuclear use, in word as well as deed. Ideally, they would be as clear as possible that if Moscow does cross the nuclear threshold, it will face consequences not only from the West, but globally. A joint statement condemning Russia’s prosecution of the war or setting out potential peace terms will likely be impossible, given G20 members’ widely divergent positions on the war. But if G20 members can find common ground on economic issues and the nuclear taboo, the Bali summit will be a worthwhile diplomatic endeavour.

Diverse Ukraine Policies

The G20 members’ positions on the war differ starkly. The U.S. and most of its allies in the Group have imposed sanctions on Moscow and voted to condemn the invasion in the UN General Assembly. Most of the other members have at least condemned Russia’s aggression and illegal efforts to annex Ukrainian territory at the UN, but not resorted to sanctions (see map). Yet three weighty non-Western G20 members – China, India and South Africa – have not only declined to place sanctions on Russia but also abstained in UN votes on the war.

This map shows which G20 members have sanctioned Russia, and which voted to condemn its illegal "annexations" in Ukraine at the UN in October.

Various non-Western members of the G20 have at times tried to establish a diplomatic role in the war, although the results have mainly been negligible. South Africa attempted to take a lead at the UN in March by tabling a General Assembly resolution on humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. Western and Ukrainian diplomats rejected the draft out of hand because it made no reference to Moscow’s responsibility for the war (in contrast to an alternative UN text worked up by France and Mexico), although South African officials insisted to Crisis Group that theirs was a good-faith initiative to bolster multilateral cooperation.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visited both Kyiv and Moscow over the summer, promising to facilitate communication between the warring capitals. Many observers suspected that his main concern was to make sure that the war would not stop the G20 summit from going ahead. Indonesia has raised the possibility of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attending the summit, although Kyiv has indicated he will most likely only intervene via video link.

Other G20 members have also dipped their toes in Ukraine diplomacy. Mexico surprised and confused UN officials at September’s high-level UN General Assembly week by tabling a proposal for the Pope, the UN secretary-general and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lead a ceasefire effort. This idea has not taken off to date. There has also been a sporadic flow of speculation among Western commentators that India – which has increased trade with Russia since the February assault – could eventually prove a useful facilitator of Russian-Ukrainian diplomacy, and Modi urged President Putin to take a “path to peace” at September’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.

In contrast to these fledgling and tentative peace efforts, Türkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has emerged as one of the main diplomatic actors in the crisis. Türkiye hosted early, fruitless Russian-Ukrainian peace talks, but had success when it worked with the UN over the summer to broker the Black Sea grain deal. This deal permitted Ukraine to export its harvest by sea without Russian military interference. Türkiye and another G20 member, Saudi Arabia, also facilitated a sizeable prisoner swap – involving some 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russians – in September. Behind closed doors, G20 participants will surely probe Erdoğan as to whether his frequent interlocutor Putin is ready to compromise. But there is no sign in advance of the Bali summit that Ankara sees a breakthrough coming.


For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety.

But, however much attention Erdoğan garners in Bali, leaders may focus even more closely on what China’s President Xi Jinping has to say. For the U.S. and Ukraine’s other allies, Beijing’s view of the war has been a constant source of anxiety since February. In recent months, Western observers believe they have seen increasing signs of frustration in China with the course of the conflict. Beijing has indicated its concern that Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling, bad enough in itself, might be more than dangerous talk. This concern was heightened by the Kremlin’s vague, erroneous intimations that Ukraine, not Russia, wants to raise the nuclear stakes with a “dirty bomb”. Xi articulated these issues most clearly in a joint statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz opposing the “threat or use of nuclear weapons” in Ukraine.

Points of Agreement

While G20 members have, therefore, no shortage of opinions about Russia’s war in Ukraine, it is difficult to see how they could reconcile their divergent views in Bali. It is hard, for example, to square Mexico’s advocacy for an early ceasefire (which Brazil and Argentina also advocated for at the UN in September) with Western powers’ worries that Moscow could use a pause in hostilities to consolidate control over parts of Ukraine even as it rearms and repositions for the next phase of conflict.

Rather than focus on the specifics of how to end the war, G20 leaders may be better advised to identify broad areas of agreement about how to contain the war and its fallout. The most obvious would be for those G20 leaders who are in Bali to endorse the Xi-Scholz condemnation of nuclear threats and nuclear use. Alternatively, or additionally, they could reiterate the basic principle that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”, which the five nuclear weapons states (the UK, China, France, Russia and the U.S.) affirmed in a statement to the UN in January. Such a declaration might be complicated by the G20’s incompatible positions on non-proliferation issues (Brazil, for example, has lobbied for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, whereas India is not even a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty). Given Russia’s recurrent allusions to nuclear use in Ukraine, however, the leaders should at least be able to agree they are opposed to nuclear threats and nuclear war.

The goal of such a declaration, however minimal or vague, would be to signal to Moscow that it will face global diplomatic and other penalties, rather than just consequences from the West, if its nuclear rhetoric turns to action in any way. Russia has shown some interest in how its moves in Ukraine – such as its agreement to the Black Sea grain deal – are seen in the non-Western world. G20 leaders are not likely to spell out in concrete terms what steps they would take if Russia does cross the nuclear threshold – indeed, it might be better they do not try to be too explicit, as doing so might only highlight their differences. But some sort of common signalling, especially one that by definition has both U.S. and Chinese buy-in, could help strengthen the nuclear taboo.

G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing.

Turning to the war’s impact, G20 members can offer common support to efforts to reduce the global economic damage the conflict is doing. They could start by making a statement in support of the Black Sea grain deal (which is up for renewal by Russia and Ukraine on 19 November) and calling for this deal, which now has to be reaffirmed every 120 days, to continue indefinitely until hostilities cease. Such a statement would be a fillip not only for President Erdoğan, but also for UN officials working on implementing the agreement, which Russia threatened to quit in October after a Ukrainian attack on its navy.

More broadly, G20 leaders can use the Bali summit to help prop up the teetering global economy, much as their predecessors did in 2008-2009. Potential priorities include pushing multilateral development banks to boost lending to poor countries to handle economic challenges that could foment political instability. In 2021, G20 members committed to support liquidity in the global economy by making available to poor countries $100 billion in International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights (a reserve asset that Crisis Group discussed in detail in a briefing prior to the 2022 G7 meeting). They have been slow to follow through with this pledge, and they need to pick up the pace as the international economic picture gets bleaker.

Given its origins and membership, the G20 has greater credibility as an economic crisis management mechanism than as a security forum. Its actions on the global economy will carry more weight than its members’ political statements about Ukraine. Yet the last year has made it clear that global economic affairs cannot be insulated from security shocks, and big powers must tend to both. At the same time, Russia’s nuclear menacing amid the conflict it is waging in Ukraine is simply too big an issue to ignore. The Bali summit is an opportunity for the leading Western and non-Western powers to at least articulate their shared interest in not letting the war escalate out of all control.

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