Will the New G-20 Eclipse the United Nations?


Sachs and Solman; file photo

Question: Your exuberance the other day in discussing the addition of several countries to the G-8 — now G-20 — led me to speculate whether the new G-20 could, in a real sense, eclipse the United Nations. Can the G-20 have the potential to accomplish many of the things the United Nations has either been unable or incapable to do for 50 years. You and the person you referenced in your piece seemed positively giddy over the expansion of the group.

Paul Solman: The person I referred to, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, is, like me, a pretty emotional guy. Sometimes, he gets heated — about the world’s negligence of the poor, for example. On occasion, he gets giddy. And his moods tend to rub off — on me, at least.

Having just interviewed him, I may still have been on a Sachs G-20 high: most of the world finally at the table; relatively little political gamesmanship; smart leaders working together on global problems.

Will the G-20 eclipse the U.N.? Who am I to say? But that it’s replacing the G-8 seems a big deal in itself. And when, at a press conference, a top Chinese delegate said that yes, his country WILL have to consume more and yes, structural problems are slowing that process but it’s inevitable, I was struck by how collegial he sounded, whether he was just towing the Party line or not.

I sent this email exchange to Jeff for his take on eclipsing the U.N., where he ran its Millennium Project from 2002-2006. He had this to say:

Jeffrey Sachs: The G20 is an “economic forum,” without juridical power, treaty-making aspirations, or capacities in international law. It lacks the legitimacy of global representation. It is no substitute for the UN, but a complementary organization that can facilitate economic strategizing. The developing countries in the G20 avidly resist its role in negotiations on global issues (e.g. climate change), because they do not want to undermine the UN-based negotiations, and undermine the 172 or so UN members not in the G20 (the “or so” reflects the fact that the G20 members is not really 20 countries).

For more of Jeff’s thoughts on what the expansion to the G-20 means, you can read an op-ed Jeff wrote for the FT right after the summit here.