Tomorrow the leaders of the world's biggest economies meet in Toronto for the Group of 20 (G20) summit. Their priority, as it should be, is to ensure global economic recovery. But the assembled statesmen can and must do more. They should begin transforming the G20 from a temporary crisis committee into an enduring global steering group.
To date, most analysts have focused on the G20's admirable response to the global economic crisis. But they have paid less attention to where the G20 is headed. This is unfortunate, since the G20 is the most important innovation in global governance since the end of the Cold War.
The G20's emergence underscores an ongoing shift of relative global economic and political power to the developing world - particularly to Asia. Collectively, its members represent two-thirds of the world's population and generate more than 85 percent of global domestic product. It is the only international forum in which major developed and developing nations meet in formal equality at the highest level of government. The G20 thus stands in contrast to the two-tiered UN Security Council, the weighted voting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), or the more restricted Group of Eight (G8).
The G20 has much to be proud of already. Thanks to its coordinated policy interventions, the world avoided a second Great Depression. Looking back, four G20 accomplishments stand out. The biggest was mobilizing $5 trillion at the London summit of April 2009, which helped reassure the markets. Another was reinvigorating the IMF, left for dead just months before the crisis. Still another was creating a Financial Stability Board to strengthen global regulatory standards. And the last was holding the line against protectionism, preventing a 1930s-style trade war.
The G20 has shown impressive resolve and solidarity, but this "fellowship of the lifeboat" will be hard to sustain as the crisis ebbs. The G20 members must resist the temptation to go their own way and instead consolidate their achievements. At Toronto, their "to do" list includes sustaining the fitful global recovery, harmonizing "exits" from national stimulus plans, and correcting huge currency imbalances between surplus and deficit countries (notably China and the United States, respectively). The world leaders must also adopt common financial regulations, update IMF governance structures, and continue to resist the siren song of protectionism.
Even as they address these legacy tasks, the G20 leaders should expand their horizons. So far, the G20 has focused overwhelmingly on financial and economic issues, and its members have resisted mission creep. But if the G8 experience is any guide, the G20 will inevitably be drawn into a broader global agenda, encompassing issues like development, climate, and - eventually - peace and security. Instead of resisting this trend, the G20 leaders should embrace it. An expanding G20 remit promises to shake up world politics in at least three healthy ways.
First, an expanding G20 will inject fresh air into global negotiations, which too often are split along outdated lines. As US President Barack Obama observed at the United Nations last September, effective multilateral diplomacy is often stifled by obsolete bloc politics inherited from the Cold War.
The G20, however, includes not only the advanced market democracies, but also prominent members of the Group of 77 (G77). By placing leaders of major developed and developing countries side by side at the same high table, the G20 increases the possibilities for diplomatic breakthroughs.