SAO PAULO — The G20, the club gathering the world's biggest economies, is the offspring of two crises. First, the 1997 Asian financial crisis led to the creation of the group in 1999, as an annual summit for finance ministers and central bank governors. Their objective back then was to coordinate policies to stabilize and/or stimulate the global economy.
But it was the global financial crisis of 2008 that forced to group to transform its annual gatherings into an assembly for heads of state. Their goal remained the same, only with increased urgency, given the severity of this second crisis.
The upgrade was the initiative of then U.S. President George W. Bush, and it was carried on by his successor, Barack Obama, who was in fact so enthusiastic about the G20 that he played an essential role in the approval, at the 2009 summit in London, of a $1.1-trillion stimulus program — the equivalent of almost two-thirds of the entire Brazilian economy.
With such a history, it's only natural that a shadow is cast over this year's summit, in Hamburg, Germany, by a specter called Donald Trump. There looms the threat of seeing the country that's been the singular champion of globalization suddenly retreat into protectionism and an "America First" mentality, the antithesis of the kind of open trade and policy coordination that's in the G20's DNA.
The fact that Trump announced the U.S." withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, the most comprehensive agreement to limit global warming ever reached, is practical evidence that Washington is creating a void in the leadership of global governance. And since in politics, voids are inexorably filled, the G20 in Hamburg will be, beyond the issues on the agenda, about seeking a new leader — or leaders.
Not that anybody can claim to be in a position to replace the United States. Trump or no Trump, the country's importance is unmatchable. You only need to look at the GDP per capita: $57,436 in the U.S. compared to, for example, $15,399 in China, which is regularly hailed as the country poised to overtake America.
What experts have instead begun to envision is the emergence of one or several countries capable of opposing Trump's isolationism.
Sook-Jong Lee, president of the South Korean East Asia Institute, puts it this way: "Now is the time for other major countries to provide additional leadership in response to numerous transnational challenges, including peace and security, terrorism, refugees, and environmental problems."
A counterweight against an inward-looking America.
The paradoxical aspect of this moment is that China, a "closed country," is presenting itself as the champion of globalization, as the counterweight against an inward-looking America. "China would like to see G20 countries work together to contain anti-globalization sentiment," says Ye Yu, from the Institute for World Economy Studies in Shanghai.
Clearly, because it takes place in Europe, this year's G20 is also an opportunity for Europe, reinvigorated after the populists' recent electoral defeats, to become the world's first reference for multilateralism.
From our point of view, it is a shame that in this time of readjustment, Brazil, which never was truly a candidate for such a kind of leadership, is in no position to even take part in the debate. The reason, of course, is that the Brazilian government is too busy devoting its energy and ideas to nothing else but its own survival.