Handshake in building hall. Source: F1online.

Bad Prospects for the G20 Summit: Credibility in International Cooperation Declines

When the heads of state and government meet for the G20 summit on 30 November 2018, it will not only be the isolationism of Western governments such as the USA or Great Britain that will burden international cooperation. The willingness to cooperate is also declining among the governments of many developing countries. In seven of the eleven developing and transition countries surveyed by the Transformation Index BTI that are members of the G20, government credibility in international cooperation has declined – in some cases sharply.

Of all four aspects of governance quality examined, international cooperation remains the most highly rated criterion in the BTI 2018 with a global average score of 6.60 points (on a scale of ten from very poor 1 to very good 10 points), far ahead of the other three criteria steering capability, resource efficiency and consensus-building. At the same time, however, with -0.22 points it has also lost the most of all four criteria of the Governance Index in the past twelve years. Primary responsibility for the global declines is on the indicator of credibility; indeed, nearly one-half of all countries surveyed by the BTI have lost ground here in the past 12 years. A total of 59 governments are today regarded as less reliable partners than previously and are less actively engaged in multilateral and international initiatives, while only 30 governments have been able to improve their international standing.

The greatest fall in scores have been experienced by erstwhile model country Mozambique and the Central Asian Tajikistan, each showing a decline of five points. Both countries have fallen out of favor with the international community due to corruption associated with opaque credit dealings. In Tajikistan, the regime has also repressed political opponents, and has been accused of serious human-rights violations. Other states with plummeting scores include Hungary (-4 points), Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey (-3), Brazil, Kenya (-2), the Philippines and South Africa (-1); within this group, a dwindling engagement in international relations has been accompanied by increasing polarization and a decline in domestic consensus-building, along with backward steps with regard to political participation and the rule of law.

However, a differentiation must be made among the G20 countries: Democratically governed states such as Brazil and South Korea did lose some credibility, but from a very high level of willingness to cooperate internationally. Now, however, it is to be expected that the newly elected right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro, as “Brazil’s Trump”, will also smash diplomatic porcelain and deviate from international agreements, for example on the protection of the rainforest. India and Indonesia also fell slightly behind in their international standing in recent years, as their governments irritated investors with nationalist tones and protectionist tendencies. However, in the long-term trend both countries still rank higher than twelve years ago in terms of their credibility as large and relatively stable democracies. Superpower China has made great efforts in recent years to be perceived as a reliable partner, even though Western countries deplore industrial espionage and cyber-attacks as well as Chinese armament policy and an increasingly hegemonic and confrontational stance in East Asia.

More serious is the slump in international approval experienced by President Enrique Peña Nieto, formerly lauded as a “Mexican JFK”, in the course of the drug war and student murders, especially since Mexico’s credibility has declined three times in a row over the past ten years. A heavy legacy for the newly elected President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who will take office on 1 December 2018. The Turkish government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have also clearly lost international trust, partly because of the country’s increasing Islamization, and partly because of a polarizing domestic policy and a patronage policy that undermines essential aspects of the protection of private property.

Next to the Saudi royal family, whose tainted image was even more worsened by the recent Kashoggi affair, it is the Russian government that lost most with regard to international credibility. President Putin insists on a “moral autonomy” and refuses to follow any other guidelines than those defined by Russia itself. Particularly, this includes the definition of territorial spheres of influence and aggressive foreign policy behavior.

Does this year’s host Argentina provide a silver lining? Not really. Certainly, after Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s erratic term in office ended, the country has clearly regained international credibility. However, it has failed so far to win the trust of international investors. The country is currently struggling with a five-fold problem bundle of currency volatility, a high budget deficit, considerable foreign debt, high inflation rates and recession. Even though international observers praise President Mauricio Macri’s reform course, his domestic credibility has been severely shaken and with it his internationally perceived ability to ensure stability. His only current strength is the weakness of his predecessor and challenger, who is entangled in yet another corruption scandal. Not a solid basis to signal reliability and gain trust.

In terms of current economic performance, Argentina and Brazil are in most trouble. However, a negative long-term economic trend can be observed in most of the developing countries within the G20, often exacerbated by the volatility of commodity prices on the world market. It is striking that (apart from Argentina and Saudi Arabia) the development of economic performance and international government credibility often seems to run in parallel: China, India and Indonesia have maintained their already considerable economic strength and their governments enjoy constant or slightly increasing trust on the international stage, while Brazil, Mexico, Russia, South Africa (under President Jacob Zuma) and Turkey are losing ground both in terms of economic performance and the credibility of their governments.

This points to one aspect highlighted in the BTI 2018 global trend analysis on economic transformation that “declining export incomes only exacerbated circumstances of crisis triggered by other politically induced shortcomings in governance”. Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey were explicitly named as examples of “bad economic governance”, which then consequently also entail regressions in the international credibility of governments. Poor governance, economic problems and declining credibility – many G20 governments find themselves under immense pressure.

So precisely at a time when increasing interconnectedness and the deepening complexity of global problems is rendering intensified international cooperation urgently necessary, the capability of influential governments to take on a peaceable and reliable role in this process is weakening. While a large majority in many countries actually opts for multilateralism, autocrats and populists worldwide are turning isolationist and nationalistic instead. Truly no good prospects for a successful and cooperative G20 summit.


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