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A Bigger Table, A Broader Agenda

By David Shorr, Program Officer, The Stanley Foundation

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The global financial crisis sparked action. It’s time to apply that same urgency to political and security challenges

The commitment by the G20 countries to hold regular meetings of their heads of state and government – after the first three G20 summits were convened ad hoc – was a watershed moment for global diplomacy. The move signalled that a new set of global and regional powers had now arrived as members of the exclusive ‘in crowd’ of international policy making. The West and the rest (some of them, at least) would now share closer quarters. The meetings where leading countries consult and coordinate had been thoroughly retooled to reflect 21st-century power realities. Or had they?

In fact, the key passage of the communiqué issued by the leaders at Pittsburgh in September 2009 was tailored more narrowly, designating the G20 as the “premier forum for international economic cooperation”. In other words, there would be more seats at the high table dealing with a portion of the global agenda, albeit an extremely important one. The established powers’ traditional G8 club would remain the venue for addressing political and security matters such as fragile states, nuclear proliferation and terrorism.

This division of diplomatic labour is an important backdrop not only for the items that G8 leaders will discuss in Muskoka, but also more broadly for the political and security agenda that confronts the world community. As the G20 brings a broad spectrum of countries together to promote global economic stability, the more closely aligned G8 countries are also combining efforts to help reduce sources of conflict and boost political and social conditions.

Whatever the issue or goal, in assessing the groupings’ multilateral efforts, the same basic calculus applies as in any collective endeavour: what a given group can accomplish depends on who is at the table. The major political challenges of today – fragile states, poverty reduction, and the terrorist and nuclear threats – need to be tackled in multiple dimensions. A like-minded group of western powers (plus Russia) such as the G8 is well suited to tackle these problems at some levels. But to deal with the politically sensitive dimensions, a more diverse group such as the G20 is needed.

To a great extent, the G8 countries approach political and security affairs as development assistance donors – a natural focus for a group of the world’s wealthiest countries. The July 2009 summit in L'Aquila, Italy, launched a major food security initiative to support long-term agriculture development, good nutrition and systems to respond to sudden spikes in food prices. This year, the Canadian host government has given maternal and children's health, supporting two of the Millennium Development goals, a prominent place on the agenda. Haiti and its recovery from the January earthquake will be another development topic.

Much of the rest of the G8's political and security agenda has the leaders work in a related development assistance mode: supporting governmental capacity building. This is entirely appropriate, since the world needs natioal governments to be capable of carrying out key security functions, dealing with sources of vulnerability and, in the extreme, keeping their territory from devolving into ungoverned spaces.

On the Muskoka agenda, and more broadly, Afghanistan is the quintessential case. Tracing the past 30 years of Afghanistan's history is like reading a kind of medical text on the pathology of chronic instability. Beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghanistan has been beset by a proxy war between Cold War rivals, a civil war, misrule by religious fanatics, a major training and operational base for global terror network, another invasion and civil war, competition between traditional and modern forms of political authority, economic dependence on opium poppies as a cash crop and government corruption – with many of these afflictions feeding one another.

While the US-led coalition in Afghanistan ‘talks the talk’ of patiently cultivating legitimate and capable governance, its day-to-day effort to stabilise the country often opts for dubious partnerships of convenience. As the G8’s potential contribution, the planners of the Canadian summit have focused on strengthening customs and immigration controls at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Given how important cross-border movement is for the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani supporters – and how remote the region is geographically – this is clearly much more than a typical capacity-building project. It involves just the sort of diplomatic heavy lifting that demands a broader set of stakeholders than the G8.

Therein lies the essential question for the future G8 role in political and security affairs. As a group that represents just a slice of the global political spectrum, will it be confined mainly to sponsoring work that, while valuable, is essentially technical and relatively uncontroversial? What contribution can a group of like-minded countries make toward the really sensitive and polarising challenges on the international agenda?

The nuclear proliferation agenda further illustrates the problem. US president Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit in April brought together leaders from more than 45 countries to deal with one of the most urgent security challenges of our time: keeping key nuclear components and ingredients safely locked away and out of reach of terror networks. It was an impressive display of international cooperation and will contribute palpably to a safer world.

Sure enough, two important operational elements in this area are creatures of the G8: the Global Initiative to Counter Nuclear Terrorism and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. But while the global community shares a near universal commitment to keeping dangerous material and technology away from non-state actors, there is no such consensus about measures to keep more nation-states from acquiring nuclear weapons. The intensive statecraft surrounding the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes stems from deeper divisions regarding whether and how to enforce non-proliferation, despite its being a basic norm of the international system. The question for the G8 is whether it will work at just one or both of these diplomatic levels.

World leaders shifted to focus on the G20 as an economic policy forum once they realised that more key international players were needed to deal with the challenges. This raises the question: don’t the political problems on the global agenda also need to have the rising powers at the table?

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