The United Nations vs. the G-7 and the G-20: Does the UN Still Matter?

This is my first post about the UN and my upcoming non-fiction book about it - if you missed the "turn" my blog recently took, read the post explaining my approach to "blogging my book" here. What I want to do is share with you some of the major findings that will be presented in the book (tentative title: "Soft Power, How Politics Work at the United Nations").
UN Member States

In a globalized world where traditional states are losing sovereignty to new actors like transnational corporations,  the question arises whether the United Nations, originally conceived as a “club of governments”, still plays a role in international politics. 

In fact, transnationals have been larger and moved more capital than many UN member states; a 2007 UNCTAD report provided an arresting snapshot of the "universe of the largest transnational corporations", pointing out that transnational corporations have been driving growth in global trade and foreign direct investment in all sectors since the late 20th century. The Gross National Product and total population of the smaller UN member states are but a fraction of the assets and staff of transnational corporations.
Château de Rambouillet 2013.JPG
Chateau de Rambouillet
Worse, the founding members of the United Nations started giving signs of wanting to walk out on the UN just thirty years after its creation. 

The heads of  advanced, industrialized nations had their first yearly meeting in France at the Chateau de Rambouillet, hosted by Valérie Giscard d'Estaing in November 1975. For three days, the heads of  France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States met as friends and got to know each other on a personal basis, a first in international politics and a sea change in diplomacy. The G-7 relegated forever to the past the modus operandi of the Congress of Vienna, with star diplomats like Talleyrand.

The following year, Canada joined and the G-6 became the G-7. 

Over the next forty years, the G-7 became institutionalized outside the UN system. With Russia it became briefly the G-8; when Putin invaded Crimea, the group "punished" him and returned to its G-7 level.

On the face of it, the G-7 appeared to be set to displace the main UN political pillar, in particular the Security Council. Consider that the Security Council is in fact often weakened by its five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - who can use their veto power to stop the UN as a whole from taking any action. The Soviet Union notoriously blocked the UN throughout the Cold War and the world knew a strong UN Security Council only for a short period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now we are back to the familiar blocking pattern, with Russia, China and the US threatening vetoes whenever their friends come under attack, like Syria for the former two and Israel for the latter.

When a single veto-wielding country can condition the world, we are getting perilously close to hell. 

Is the G-7 an attempt at a solution? Hardly. It does upgrade  Germany Italy and Japan to the level of "Big Powers" - something that has never happened at the UN Security Council though it is much talked about .  But it misses out on China and Russia.

Yet, in spite of the shortcomings, the example set by this select group of Big Powers was eventually imitated. 

There was, starting in 1997, and in quick succession, the G-22 and the G-33. Finally, in 1999, an early form of the G-20 was set up to focus on financial issues with the aim of promoting international financial stability; it pulled together all the major developed and developing countries, 19 individual countries plus the European Union (with Spain as a permanent guest):

Dark blue: G-20 member countries; Light blue: EU countries not individually represented (Source: "G20" by Marcin )

As you can see in this map, the G-20 does have Russia and China as members. But it leaves out most of Africa and a good chunk of Latin America and Asia (four countries that had been part of the G-22 have now fallen out, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand). Yet the G-20 accounts for 85% of the world gross national product, 80% of world trade and two thirds of the world population.  And the G-20, being a club of big nations, neatly by-passes the annoying problem of UN member states that are smaller than transnational corporations.

In 2008, the G-20 started to include heads of state and expanded its mandate, claiming to be the "main economic council of wealthy nations." In short, the G-20 appeared to be trying to displace one of the two big pillars of the United Nations, ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council.

Can the G-20 hope to replace the United Nations in its economic and social mission? Can the G-7 do politically what the Security Council can't?

So far, neither the G-20 or the G-7 have achieved anything memorable. When they meet, protesters activate themselves far more than they do with the United Nations - but they need not worry. The  announcements resulting from G-20 and G-7 meetings always correspond to the lowest common denominator, those rare issues on which nobody can disagree or dares to publicly disagree. 

Schloss Elmau, Germany
The latest G-7 meeting that took place in Germany on 7-8 June 2015 at Schloss Elmau is a case in point. The subjects under discussion? On day one: trade; on day two: climate, energy and development.

Broad subjects, something for everyone around the table. 

Trade this time was about the transatlantic free trade agreement and everyone nodded assent without giving specifics. 

Climate, energy and development was about preparations for the UN Climate Change Conference due to take place in Paris at the end of the year and about development cooperation, opportunities for women and health - subjects that were discussed in an open session with representatives of African states and international organizations. 

This is known as an "outreach" meeting and in this case, it connected the G-7 with 6 African heads of state (Ethiopia, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia) and the chiefs of the OECD, the IMF, the World Bank, the UN (Secretary General), the International Labour Organization  and the African Union Commission

Was all this useless talk? 

The answer in the next post.