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The G20 Falls to Earth in India

The major story of this week is the G20 Summit (9-10 September, New Delhi), and what it portends for the reassembly of the world’s institutions of power, diplomatic dialogue and cultural exchange.

As I write this story, the final results of the summit are not yet known. I will update the story with my reflections on the outcome of the summit on Monday on my author website (, and might even have a stab at an article for more general publication.

India has invested enormous effort into its leadership of the G20 this year. It convened the “Voice of the Global South” conference so that India could open the G20 club to other voices. It deployed its skilled diplomats to pursue practical goals, including more inclusive development and reform of international institutions. It brought many preparatory events of the Summit (Ministerial and officials meetings on economics, foreign policy, sustainable development, culture and more) to many parts of India. This “People’s G20” echoed the theme of the “Voice of the Global South”. It engaged the Indian public in a vision of India on the world stage, and it offered thousands of officials from around the world a new experience of a thriving, more assertive Bharat.

It may also have shined the prestige of Prime Minister Modi ahead of the 2024 elections. During this week Narendra Modi published an opinion piece that set out his assessment of how well India has accomplished its vision for its G20 Presidency,

“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” — these two words capture a deep philosophy. The phrase means “the world is one family”. This is an all-embracing outlook that encourages us to progress as one universal family, transcending borders, languages, and ideologies. During India’s G20 Presidency, this has translated into a call for human-centric progress. As One Earth, we are coming together to nurture our planet. As One Family, we support each other in the pursuit of growth. And we move together towards a shared future — One Future — which is an undeniable truth in these interconnected times.

He concluded his assessment by saying

Our G20 Presidency strives to bridge divides, dismantle barriers, and sow seeds of collaboration that nourish a world where unity prevails over discord, where shared destiny eclipses isolation. As the G20 President, we had pledged to make the global table larger, ensuring that every voice is heard and every country contributes. I am positive that we have matched our pledge with actions and outcomes.

India has matched its pledge, but have all the countries of the G20, especially its privileged G7 members, reciprocated? There have been many Ministerial meetings, decisions, communiques and working documents produced over the year to justify Modi’s view. All these documents may seem tedious waffle to an outsider, but as a former insider government official I see these rites of dialogue and diplomacy as important. They are the rivers down which delicate barks of cultural exchange sail. 

But they also express the dilemmas for the effectiveness of the G20 as an institution. The G20 has a patchy record over its brief life. It is not the UN, and is not a narrow, self-interested bloc like the G7. Tensions emerge, but have no real way to be resolved. There is an ever-present danger, especially with the verge to virtual reality in contemporary ‘democratic’ politics, that the G20 fails to house the One World family in the domestic routines of serious work and cultural exchange. There is a a growing risk that it becomes yet another theatrical forum for poorly performed political stunts. 

For example, on August 26 2023,  the G20 Culture Minister’s Meeting produced the “Outcome Document and Chair’s Summary” that agreed on a set of principles on culture and the heritage of the multipolar world, always a major concern here at the Burning Archive. This document stated strong support for “an open and inclusive dialogue on the return and restitution of cultural property.” These principles might open a gate for progress to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond or the Greek marble artefacts stolen by one of the many Lord Elgins. The statement also stressed the importance of culture “building on a broad historical perspective that renews relationships between countries, while also enabling alternate dispute resolution mechanisms,” in ways this minor retired government official might endorse. Yet Western diplomats also clearly ground down other countries to insert text into the statement on “geopolitical issues”, in order to stage a protest in support of Ukraine, that country whose leaders and zealots ban Russian language, dehumanise Russians as ‘orcs’ and ‘vampires’, and tear down statues of Pushkin and Catherine II, whose Russian Ark of the Hermitage Museum has done more for the heritage of the world than any Cultural Ministers’ meeting. 

This text in two paragraphs demonstrates the difficulty of achieving India’s vision of the G20 enacting the ancient Vedic principle of ‘one world, one family’. The text suggests the Culture Ministers meeting saw the rich uncles and aunties of the world family insist the world is flat and to be governed by their unwritten rules alone. Paragraph 15 stated

The war in Ukraine has further adversely impacted the global economy. There was a discussion on the issue. We reiterated our national positions as expressed in other fora, including the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, which, in Resolution No. ES-11/1 dated 2 March 2022, as adopted by majority vote (141 votes for, 5 against, 35 abstentions, 12 absent) deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine. Most members strongly condemned the war in Ukraine and stressed it is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy – constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity, and elevating financial stability risks. There were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions. Recognizing that the G20 is not the forum to resolve security issues, we acknowledge that security issues can have significant consequences for the global economy.

The footnotes to this paragraph note Russia and China’s rejection of this statement, and China’s view that the G20 Culture Minister’s Meeting is not the place to discuss geopolitical and security concerns. Then paragraph 15 stated the broad Indian and Global South position on the war.

It is essential to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguard peace and stability. This includes defending all the Purposes and Principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and adhering to international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflicts. The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible. The peaceful resolution of conflicts, efforts to address crises, as well as diplomacy and dialogue, are vital. Today’s era must not be of war.

The last sentence reiterated the statement by Narendra Modi to Vladimir Putin that has been interpreted variously from many perspectives. If only it were realised. As Spengler said, “Peace is desire. War is fact.”The question to be assessed over the weekend may be whether PM’s Modi deep, sincere and patient desire for peace can overcome the United States of America’s addiction to war and coercive diplomacy.

The early signs during the week before the summit have not been good. It was marked by the disappointing news that the leaders of two partner superpowers, Russia and China, will not attend the G20 summit. In particular, Xi Jinping’s non-attendance may seem disappointing. It has been explained by some Western commentators as reflecting tensions between China and India. Others see it not a snub to India, but a refusal to be bullied, berated and broken by that Biden in a China Shop, the USA. The West has over-done its virtual reality theatre at the diplomatic summits of the world. The real leaders of the emerging multipolar world have abandoned the pantomime, and begun to focus instead on the patient rebuilding of multilateralism in a world that is larger than dreamt of by a diminished ex-Captain America.

M.K. Bhadrakumar did publish this excellent preview of the summit, “Last Waltz in a World Torn Apart”. He noted how American boorishness, impunity and exceptionalism has wrecked the G20, and broken the hall of mirrors that are the delicate illusions of multilateral institutions.

The point is, all this while, Washington has also been incessantly taunting and provoking Beijing with belligerence and through calculated means to weaken China’s economy and incite Taiwan and the ASEAN countries to line up as the US’ Indo-Pacific allies, apart from vilifying China. Both Putin and Xi Jinping have learnt the hard way that Biden is a past-master in doublespeak, saying one thing behind closed doors and acting entirely to the contrary, often being rude and offensive at a personal level in unprecedented display of boorish public diplomacy.

There was a remarkable incident in such boorishness when the American Department of State issued a misleading statement of the Indonesian Government’s views which its Foreign Minister soon repudiated. If there was an international rules based order, the courts would surely have sent the USA to jail years ago for misleading and deceptive conduct. In any case, M.K. Bhadrakumar concluded

The strong likelihood is that the forthcoming Delhi event this weekend may turn out to be the last waltz of its kind between the cowboys of the Western world and the increasingly restless Global South. The revival of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa is ominous. Quite obviously, Russia and China are putting their eggs in the BRICS basket. 

It seems that following India’s ascent to the moon at the BRICS Summit, the G20, Western diplomacy and American hegemony have become stranded in the wayward flashy spacecraft that set up as an alternative to the UN. Like Major Tom, they are lost in space, sitting in their tin can, far above the world, never to return to our plural reality. While the West floats away, its faulty G20 spaceship has fallen to earth; to this one and only earth on which we all dwell together.

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