The G20 was born after a flawed response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. It has de facto replaced the G7/8, the faded club of the world's elite economies, whose main outputs had become photo-ops for presidents and prime ministers in country retreats and mega-dollar security efforts against protesters.
The G20, a mix of old G8 and some newly emerging economies, initially just for finance ministers, re-born as a summit, was given the daunting task of saving us from the U.S.-driven global financial crisis of 2008.
There was a surge of collective action. George W. Bush, then in his lame-duck days, reluctantly hosted the first Leaders G20 in November 2008. Key decisions were taken in April 2009 at the London G20 Summit on a massive coordinated program of Keynesian fiscal stimulus.
This eased the sense of immediate crisis. But has the G20 now peaked prematurely?
It has certainly slipped into the flawed G8 mode of endless technical debate between finance officials. There is a quagmire of competing plans for avoiding a repeat global banking crisis, with Americans and Europeans squabbling over whose regulations are the best (or rather, the least bad). Political vision and leadership are largely absent.
Economically our world has been largely kept afloat for the last three years by the resilience and growth of mainly China and India, but also other emerging economies. Big decisions, political as well as economic, increasingly seek a discreet G2 (U.S. and China) consensus. The faded G8 is no longer a credible sole powerbroker. The U.S., burnt politically and economically by its 'wars of choice' in Iraq and Afghanistan, is now a hesitant leader.
The continuing debt overhang in the USA and Europe, plus Japan's tsunami-triggered crisis, has undermined the momentum of global recovery. American and European workers, especially the young, are paying a price of high unemployment.
Indeed there is a sense that we are maybe in the early days of a 'double-dip,' as a result of policy failure (or paralysis) by floundering leaders in the USA and Europe.
Maybe worst of all, the U.S. president, in resolving the debt-ceiling crisis, conceded the high ground to a Tea Party-driven policy mix that rejects stimulus and, by squeezing immediate public spending, is quite likely to trigger further job-losses.
Can the G20 be resuscitated in time for its next summit in Cannes this November? Or will it also descend into self-indulgent chatter, among just a larger group of leaders?
Sarkozy currently holds the chair for France. He certainly talks about an agenda for action. But is he serious or just driven by his desire for a good profile ahead of the 2012 French election?
The G20's BRIC members are hardly doing any better. Having pressed for a more equitable share in global governance, they have shown little interest in exercising this influence or putting practical ideas on the table. But they just made a first bold step: a unilateral BRIC Summit on helping indebted Europeans!
China seems to be playing for the longer-term, worrying whether contagion is finally reaching its shores with shrinking western markets, risking politically-sensitive domestic job losses. Can it shift to a home-consumption growth strategy? It is also struggling with the risks of passivity towards its fortune locked up in U.S. Treasury Bills.
India has similar worries about shrinking exports and jobs. It is also suffering from its hyper-active democracy, including the hunger strike from its new Gandhi, Anna Hazare, with his demands for anti-corruption legislation.
Canada helped create the G20. Can it now help re-energize its child? It boasts of dodging the financial crisis thanks to its wise regulatory stance, but so far has done little to help fill the leadership or financing gap.
A now domestically secure Conservative government could help on several fronts, including building a consensus to better regulate international banks. It might support the French initiative on an international financial transaction tax, tapping still buoyant profits in offshore banking. A modest tax could support development funds such as for global warming mitigation or Canada's own priority for maternal health (MCH).
Can Canada lead in giving the G20 a broader, more comprehensive mandate? The world has waited a decade for trade reform. How about pressing for a G20 mandate to break the rich-poor deadlock over Doha? Could there be a formal G20 seat for a fragile state? What about serious action on global governance, starting with the international financial institutions, now blocked by the Europeans? Could a G20 Secretariat take on the technical analysis that seems to overly occupy busy G20 leaders?
But so far Canada seems coy about taking a leadership role. The present wariness and weariness of its G8 partners provides a great opening to shine as a global citizen -- and impress developing country G20 partners.
John Sinclair is a member of the McLeod Group. A Senior Fellow at the School of International Development and Global Studies, Ottawa University, he has worked for the Economist Group, DFID, CIDA and the World Bank. He is temporarily based in Jakarta, Indonesia.