20 is still a very big number

By Ian Bremmer

Moisés Naím wisely warns us in his latest FP column that transnational problems are pressing just at a moment when multinational consensus on solutions has become nearly impossible to achieve. If 20 countries produce 85 percent of global GDP, 20 countries generate three-quarters of global greenhouse gasses, just 21 are directly concerned with nuclear non-proliferation, and 19 account for almost two-thirds of AIDS deaths, limiting negotiations over collective action to the smaller number of states needed for workable solutions makes good sense. But in today's geopolitical environment, 20 is still a very big number.

The ongoing economic meltdown has accelerated the inevitable transition from a G7 to a G20 world. Gone are the days when the United States, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Canada could credibly claim global political and economic leadership. Today, no institution that excludes China, India, Russia, Brazil, and a few other emerging heavyweights can fully address the biggest international challenges.

But it's not simply that it's tougher to forge compromises with 20 negotiators at the table than with seven. It's that some of the new players have fundamental disagreements with the established powers on some very big questions -- like what role government should play in an economy. Agreements on managing transnational health crises, nuclear proliferation, regional security, or greenhouse gasses and global warming will involve complex policy solutions with direct impact on domestic economies.

Second, the new governments at the table are preoccupied with problems much closer to home-issues that can be addressed on a (relatively) more modest and manageable scale. China's political leadership, an increasingly indispensable player on several transnational problems, is far more concerned with domestic than with international challenges. Much of its foreign policy is intended to fuel the continuation of explosive domestic economic growth-and the millions of jobs it creates. Its rhetoric may be global, but its focus is more often regional. The governments of India, Russia, and Brazil are likewise intent on managing the impact of the global recession on their domestic economies and advancing their political interests within their immediate neighborhoods. That's why much of the forward movement on transnational issues will come from regional groupings like the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Some respected observers of international politics have called for a G2, a meeting of US and Chinese minds for the ultimate in minilateralist institutions. There are many reasons why this won't happen anytime soon-if ever. The Chinese leadership may enjoy such talk, but its most seasoned policymakers know well that China cannot yet afford to shoulder such burdens. Nor are Washington and Beijing likely to agree on how to solve many of these problems. And to reduce international consensus to two countries is to ignore the growing importance of many others.

In other words, Moisés is correct that 20 is a much more manageable magic number than 200. But these 20 are unlikely to accomplish big things for the foreseeable future.