For 2021, Italy has been given the chairmanship of the Group of 20, which brings together the world’s 20 most important countries. On paper, they represent 60% of the world’s population and 80% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). While the shaky Italian government will somehow perform this task (in the general indifference of the political system), the fact remains that this apparently prestigious position is in fact very deceiving: the G20 is now a very weak institution that brings no kudos to the rotating chairman. Besides, it is actually the institution which bears the greatest part of the responsibility for the decline of the UN as the body responsible for global governance, a task that the G20 has very seldom been able to face up to.
Let us reconstruct how the G20 came about. It is a long story that begins in 1975, when France invited the representatives of Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to become the Group of Six, or G6. The idea was to create a space for discussing the international situation, not for making decisions. It then became the Group of Seven, with the addition of Canada in 1997. Russia was added in 1998, so the summit became known as the G8. And then, in 1980, the European Union was invited as a “non-enumerated participant”. In 2005, the UK government initiated the practice of inviting the five leading emerging markets – Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa – to its meetings. That same year, in Washington, G8 leaders recognised the growth of most emerging countries, and decided that a meeting of the 20 most important countries of the world would replace the G8 and become the G20.
The United Nations, the European Union, and the major international monetary and financial institutions were also invited. Spain is a permanent invitee, together with leaders of ASEAN, the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the Financial Stability Board, the International Labor Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank Group and the World Trade Organisation. In addition, in the year of its chairmanship, the host country can invite some countries that it feels particularly associated with in its foreign policy. So far, 38 countries have been invited, from Azerbaijan to Chad, from Denmark to Laos, from Sweden to Zimbabwe. To complete the history, it is important to mention that Russia was suspended by the G8 in 2014, because of its annexation of Crimea. And was never readmitted. In his inexplicable deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin, US President Donald Trump asked for its readmission to the G8, and this was refused by the other countries. The G7 has kept meeting as “a steering group of the West”. At the same time, the G20 meets regularly, with Russia as one of its members.
So, Italy has the task of inviting all those different actors, establish the agenda and planning and hosting a series of ministerial-level meetings, leading up to the summit of head of governments. As its agenda, Italy has decided the “Three Ps”: People, Planet and Prosperity. This imaginative and original agenda will be structured in 10 specialised meetings, like Finance (Venice July 9-10), Innovation and Research (Trieste Aug. 5-8) and Environment, Climate, Energy (Naples, July 22), to give just a few examples. Besides these 10 specialised meetings, there will be 8 “engagement groups”, which will range from Business to Civil Society and Youth, etc.
The G20 is formed by countries that are involved in different and often contradictory groups. For instance, after Trump killed the Transatlantic Pacific Partnership (TPP) that Barack Obama had been able to put together excluding China, with a vast range of countries from Australia to Mexico and from Canada to Malaysia, China was able to reciprocate, and created the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which puts together the same countries plus some others, and leaves the United States completely outside. This commercial bloc is the largest ever created, accounting for 30% of the world’s population and 30% of the world’s GDP.
But the European Union, (to which Italy belongs) has explicitly taken a path of European nationalism, to make the EU able to survive in the coming competition between China and the United States. The European Union (and therefore Italy) are also members of NATO, where the United States is the indispensable and fundamental partner. And in the G20 China sits with India, which is the only country that has refused to join the RCEP, and is clearly taking an alternative path to Chinese expansion in Asia. But this is also the policy of Japan, which is very active in the G7 and the G20, and has entered RCEP, and like South Korea considers limiting Chinese expansionism a priority.
Of course, there are a number of other pacts, agreements, treaties and alliances that it would be boring and useless to enumerate here. Any one country, like Italy, would therefore wear several hats at the same time. The point to make is, that since the arrival of Ronald Reagan as president of the United States in 1981, the multilateral system started to come under attack. At the North-South Summit held in Cancun a few months after his election, Reagan questioned the idea of democracy and participation as bases for international relations. Until then, UN General Assembly resolutions had been considered the basis for global governance. In 1973, the General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution calling for the reduction of the economic gap between the North and the South of the world, calling it the duty of the rich countries to establish a more just New International Economic Order, and based on the faster development of the poorer countries. Reagan denounced this as an anti-American manoeuvre. The US is not the same as Montecarlo, as he famously said (probably meaning Monaco, as Montecarlo is not a state), and yet they have a vote each. So, he argued, this democracy coming from the UN was in fact a straitjacket, and the US would proceed on the basis of bilateral relations, and not be constrained by multilateral mechanisms. Reagan was the first to talk of “America First”. He, together with Margaret Thatcher in Europe, dismantled all the social progress made in the world after the end of the Second World War. The market, with ITs invisible hand, would be the sole engine of society (which Thatcher said does not exist, only individuals). The State, which Reagan called “the beast”, was the first enemy of the citizen. He declared that the most terrifying words in English are: “I am from the Government, and I am here to help”. Any public or social cost was just a brake on the market. Reagan wanted to privatise even the Ministry of Education: he and Thatcher both left UNESCO as a symbol of disengagement from the UN. Both he and Thatcher curtailed trade unions, privatised whatever possible and started the era of neoliberal globalisation, the effects of which are now widely evident, and which Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and company bless every day, because it has created a very large swathe of disaffected citizens, who believe they will readdress their destiny.
It is important to note that Reagan met with no real opposition from the other rich countries. So, all this fragmentation of the world, with the creation of G7, G8, G20, and other exclusive clubs, was not an exclusive responsibility of Reagan and Thatcher. For forty years, the process of divesting the UN from its responsibility for the world’s peace, development, and democracy continued. Neoliberal globalisation was based on finance and trade. Even before the end of the war, finance was delegated to the Bretton Woods system, which took its name from the site where it was founded. Let us just state a fact: the financial system was established in a such way that Finance is the only sector of human activity that has no regulatory body. Today it is clearly separated from the general economy when its original function was to be at its service. And political institutions are unable to control its global structure,
The other engine of globalisation was trading. The United Nations had the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which looked to trade as an instrument of development. The creation in 1995 of the World Trade Organisation, as an independent organisation, envisaging trade as an economic engine, divested the UN from trade too. And the more the UN weakens, the easier it is to decry its shortcomings.
The coup de grace for multilateralism has been the arrival of Trump, the heir and updated version of Ronald Reagan, but with a totally different agenda and vision. His basic idea is not “America First” but “America Alone”. He pushes Reagan’s idea of bilateralism versus multilateralism to the extreme of ignoring the concept of alliances. Thus, he declared, Europe is even worse than China. But there is a fundamental difference between them: Trump never pretended to be the president of all Americans. On the contrary, he tried immediately to divide and polarise the United States, and he leaves as a legacy the US that will take a very long time to return to being a united and pacified the country. And his strategy has been taken up by several other leaders, from Jair Bolsonaro to Viktor Orban, from Recep Erdogan to Matteo Salvini.
It will therefore be difficult for the UN to recover its function of meeting place, to express plans for global governance, based on democracy and participation. This was a vision based on the lessons learned in the Second World War: let us avoid millions of deaths, terrible destruction, and to do so we need to work together. That lesson has been now forgotten. Just compare the kind of political leaders from that time and those of today to see the enormous change. The expression of national egoisms will continue, with the richest countries in exclusives clubs, like the OECD or the G20.
But there is a problem: Those clubs are not efficient, because they bring together countries with very different agendas and priorities. Let us take a good example from the last G20, held in November 2020 under the very discredited chairmanship of Saudi Arabia. One of the points was the cancellation of the debt of poor countries, which is evidently urgent because of the additional burden of the pandemic that is going to bring about disproportionate damage. Pope Francis and UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutierres both pressed for that decision. All that the G20 was able to do was freeze the payment of the interest on the debt for six months. And here, let us divagate for a useful learning exercise of the Third World Debt, and on the nobility of the rich countries.
If you take a loan that you repay over 20 years at 5%, or a mortgage of 100, at the end you will have repaid 200. And during the first ten years, all you pay is the interest, and only in the second decade do you progressively start to pay back the capital. The result is that the poor countries have renegotiated their debt several times, and every time what they paid was the interest, before starting all over again. And that interest was cumulative. During that process, they paid the amount of the capital that they received several times over. But all that they paid went to pay interest. At university you learn one good example of the perversity of cumulative interest. The old story goes that a Dutch settler, Peter Minuit, bought the island of Manhattan from the Algonquin tribe. The price paid was $24 worth of beads, trinkets, a jar of mayonnaise, two pair of wooden clogs, a loaf of bread and a packet of Quaker oats. If that amount was put in a loan at 5% with composite interest, it would now be more that the estimated value of all of Manhattan, which exceeds three trillion dollars. So, the decision of the G20 to freeze interests for six months amounts to nothing.
It is interesting to listen to insiders’ voices. The loans of the rich countries are computed in the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), established by the OECD (the organisation that brings together all the rich countries). In the good old days of multilateralism, the OECD engaged to dedicate 1% of members’ GDP to the development of the underdeveloped countries. This engagement was never kept, except for the Nordic countries and the Netherlands. The US never went over 0.3%. Anyhow, any debt remission goes into the official statistics of the DAC committee. But new loans are made by countries which are not on the DAC committee, like China, which has made a very extensive number of loans, especially in Asia and Africa under not exactly transparent conditions. For the OECD countries (basically the West), cancelling their loans could mean unleashing resources that could go to pay back Chinese loans, thus becoming China’s funders. This is a good example of how competing interests block the G20 from concerted actions.
A decision on this issue is now expected from the next G20 Summit in Rome, in November. But before that, the Global Health Summit called by the G20 together with the EU in May will be the occasion to verify what will happen with vaccines. However, in the same month, Portugal has called the very important Social Summit of the European Union. Portugal has taken the much more substantial chairmanship of the EU, and this is a very positive contribution to a positive 2021. Portugal is today probably the most civilised country of Europe, a place of tolerance, harmony and civic engagement, much like Sweden in the ‘80s. And it is the only credible country on the issue of immigration. At the Social Summit, Lisbon will push to strengthen social Europe, after so many decades of a solely economic Europe. The outgoing German chairmanship was fundamental in abandoning the austerity dogma and move to an unprecedented plan of solidarity and institutional strengthening, also made possible by the blessed departure of Britain, and its historical anti-European bias. The fact that vaccination is a European plan, and not a hotchpotch of national attempts, marks great progress in terms of vaccination. And if Europe continues along the same path on the issues of climate control and technological development, it will recover much trust from the citizens, who felt that Brussels was an unaccountable institution, far from their priorities. Now the EU is dealing with unemployment, with the economic and social disaster brought about by the Covid virus. It is a tribute to the virtues of multilateralism, solidarity and development. And Portugal will try to complete what the German chairmanship was unable to conclude.
But if we look at the obvious need for a world vaccine, the reality is much dimmer. So far, rich countries have bought as many vaccines as possible. Europe, with 13% of the world population, has bought 51% of the total production. Israel is a case study. With a population of 9 million people, highly registered and organised in the health system, Prime |Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who will do everything to stay in power), has bought the vaccines at an extra cost, but is fast reaching the entire Israeli population. This certainly cannot be the case in India, with nearly 1.4 billion people, and a very primitive health system. Even the Pope has launched an appeal for distributing a free vaccine in the poor countries, and India and South Africa (which are members of the G20) have asked the General Assembly of the World Health Organization for free distribution in poor countries. There has been strong opposition from the rich countries, which financed the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to the tune of 10 billion dollars, and which they are now buying at market prices, several times higher than those of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
And then those two vaccines use a new technology, side effects of which are still unknown, unlike AstraZeneca, which uses a well-experimented technique. But even if we take the cheaper vaccines, there is a very basic issue: under which ethical and human logic can patents and money be made over public goods, as the Pope has repeatedly asked? The patent industry has been patenting seeds, rice, plants, etc., which have existed for hundreds of years, and those peasants now cannot use without paying a royalty to the company that patented them. And then the pharmaceutical companies have also tried to patent parts of the human body. Citizens from several parts of the world have been setting up associations like Agorà for Humankind, which is conducting a campaign for the elimination of patents and profits over public goods, given that they belong to humankind. An international alliance has also been set up between the public and private sectors, the Gavi Vaccine Alliance which has the task of financing vaccination in 93 middle and poor countries. But funding is still far from coming. As things are now, at the end of 2021, only 30% of humankind will have been vaccinated, basically from rich countries.
Yet, if there is something that should make all of us aware that we are in the same boat, it is this pandemic. Until at least 70% of all humans are vaccinated, the virus will continue to strike and kill. The British mutation, much more contagious, is a good example. The country with most cases is now Spain, which has no physical contact with the UK. But the virus went to Gibraltar, the British colony since 1713 in the south of Spain, and from there spread to surrounding Spanish villages and towns. Did the realisation that viruses know no borders help to make the new treaty for relations between Gibraltar and Spain? The answer is not really: it is trade. Yet, it does not require a virologist to assume that trade spreads the virus.
So, after this long journey through different subjects, its thread should be clear. We have gone from an era when the lessons of the Second World War created a generation of politicians who made of peace and development the common ground for international relations, even during a very dangerous Cold War. Had Trump, Johnson and Putin been at Yalta, instead of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, the outcome would have been very different. Most probably, we would have had no United Nations, no international organisations. Just think that, in its push for the creation of the UN, the US agreed in its founding engagement to pay 25% of its costs.
Then, beginning with Reagan and Thatcher, came a profound change. The interests of my country are more important than international cooperation, and the stronger I am, the more so. Multilateralism and cooperation came under attack, and so did the role of the State, its function of guarantor of social progress, equity and participation. Other organizations started to sprout, and weaken the UN, and the instruments of a social pact, like trade unions. From the spirit of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a number of clubs of rich countries, like the G7, the G8, the G20, started to substitute the UN, and private clubs, like the World Economic Forum of Davos, attracted more important personalities than the General Assembly of the United Nations.
We are now in a third phase, the symbols of which abound: nationalism, xenophobia, and the illusion that sovereignty is more important than cooperation. Brexit is a notable example. But Trump sets up an unprecedented level of legitimacy to what was once considered the betrayal of civism and democracy: he exploits and exasperates the racial, cultural, gender divides of a country and runs without any compliance with rules and traditions. He is accompanied by a variegated assortment of autocratic, populist and narcissistic kinds of a new political generation: Jair Bolsonaro, Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kacynski, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Abdel Al-Sisi, Benjamin Netanyahu, Rodrigo Duterte, just to cite the most known, while others, like Matteo Salvini, are poised to take power. The virus, instead of uniting citizens, has further divided them. To wear the face-covering is a left-wing declaration, like worrying about the climate, which is a survival concern. Military expenses are on a continuous increase. In 2019 they reached an unprecedented amount of 1,917 billion dollars –enough to solve all problems of food, health and education worldwide. The UN is still the only organisation able to provide the world with plans of global significance. Its Agenda 2030 gives a plan for the solution of our most significant problems. It costs a fraction of military expenses. The G20 has paid some lip service to Agenda 30, but never anything significant. The new generation of politicians is under general scrutiny, and the outlook is not positive at all.
I would say that representative of our crisis is that books are being published on a world of conspiracy, like the one that the virus is being used by Bill Gates to introduce nanoparticles that will make it possible to control all human bodies, or myths like the one on the Bilderberg Club, one of the private clubs meeting, as the place where decisions are taken by a small elite on how to run the world ... the explosions of conspiracies is a good sign of the decline of democracy. This, when more than ever, it is clear that the system has lost its compass, and even the climate tragedy and soon-to-be two million deaths from COVID-19 are not able to bring back cooperation and multilateralism.
So, Italy now begins its chairmanship of the G20. It is a position without any significant weight and Italy has the task of organising a summit of Heads of State, from which nobody expects much. If Trump’s defeat has any significant meaning, by November the political situation could have improved, but we will have a Germany without Merkel, probably more nationalist, and the miraculous social engagement of the European Union could come to a halt. Italy has a very fragile government, and the dubious distinction of having a very young Minister of Foreign Affairs, whose only working experience was being a drinks seller at Naples’ football stadium. On the Health Summit, he does not look as though he particularly commands respect and authority. This will be Italy’s first test. In May, it will be clear that without vaccination in the world, rich countries will not be out of danger. It should be easy to rally the 20 most important countries of the world, including India and South Africa, to such obvious actions. But in these times, where interests and selfishness are the reality, it is legitimate to nourish many doubts. Anyhow, if 2021 is not to be a year of regeneration and creation, we will be on an irreversible sloping decline ...time is running out.