WATERLOO, Ontario — In Pittsburgh, Pa., a year ago, the leaders of the world’s 20 leading countries declared that the Group of 20 summit would henceforth be the world’s premier forum for international economic governance. The group meets again in Seoul on Nov. 11-12.
In between there was a meeting in Canada in June that will be remembered mostly for downtown Toronto being turned into an armed fortress and the largest peacetime arrest of citizens in this country. A thousand Canadians were arrested — some for protesting, others for merely being caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time.
To add to the general confusion, Canada hosted the G8 summit back to back with the G20. Mercifully, South Korea is not a member of the G8 and can thus concentrate fully on the G20.
With a membership of 20, each country will get to host a G20 summit only once every 20 years. So, the value-added legacy of each individual summit becomes even more important.
What might South Korea contribute to the G20 process and to improvements in international governance that will make Seoul 2010 a truly historic summit? To answer this, let’s look at what makes South Korea unique as a G20 host.
First, South Korea has a trifecta of achievements that set it apart in the world. It has emerged from the trauma of war and conflict in the 1950s to be a stable country, albeit in a high-threat environment. Moreover, this transition was due in no small measure to the assistance and engagement of other countries and international organizations, principally the United Nations.
Similarly, South Korea is almost a poster model for having made the difficult journey from a poor developing country to a vibrant and prosperous economy. And it has made the transition from a dictatorship to a democracy and human rights-respecting regime that poses no threat to its own citizens or to any outside country.
Second, like all East Asian countries, South Korea lacks the tradition and experience of a multilateral frame of mind. For reasons of history and geopolitics, China, Japan and South Korea have given priority to bilateral relations. It is no accident that the multilateral process and agenda even in East Asia has been driven principally by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), for example the ASEAN Regional Forum.
China, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has been a very fast and skilled learner and practitioner of multilateralism. Hosting a G20 summit is thus a great opportunity to expose and educate East Asian media and people on the world of multilateral diplomacy: what it means, its benefits and its limitations.
Third, South Korea has made it a point to reach out to civil society. This, too, is insufficiently appreciated and inadequately done in East Asia. In the other direction, Seoul will push the development agenda and has the potential to educate some of the old G8 countries on the virtues of human security, which to most East Asians is attractive in its development manifestations.
The feminist agenda in most Western countries, for example, is mostly about glass ceilings and the like. In South Asia its core concerns are honor killings, child marriages, marital rape, dowry deaths, sex trafficking and the like. There is a qualitative difference.
In a similar vein, Seoul has taken up the cause of a global financial safety net. The Asia-Pacific region experienced a traumatic financial crisis in 1997-98, the memory of which has not faded from the region’s collective consciousness.
The 2008-2010 global financial crisis once again highlighted the vulnerability of many developing and emerging countries to a global liquidity crunch. In many cases, their financial distress was no less severe than those of countries where the crisis originated.
A global financial safety net, officially proposed by President Lee Myung Bak last November, would band together global and regional funds to safeguard vulnerable economies from the risk of rapid capital outflows.
As we learned painfully in 2008, in today’s politically and economically interconnected world, shocks spread rapidly across sectors — from banking and finance to the entire economy, from New York locally to national and global, and across countries.
Crises are increasingly systemic, rather than specific to a firm, sector or country. All major countries must accept some responsibility for the systemic consequences of intranational failures and pay an insurance risk premium for that.
Ramesh Thakur is professor of political science, University of Waterloo; adjunct professor in the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law, Griffith University, Australia; and coauthor, with Thomas Weiss, of “Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey” (2010).
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