Why the G-7 and G-20 Cannot Replace the United Nations

This is the continuation of the previous post which asked the question: Does the United Nations Still Matter, considering the rise of the G-7 and G-20 that are summit meetings of the most important countries in the world (if you haven't read it, scroll down or click here).  

Oxfam protesters message to G-7 (source here)

Are G-7 and G-20 meetings nothing but useless talk? 

The G-20, as noted in the last post, copies the model of the G-7 and is organized along the same lines, following the same modus operandi. For our purpose - to determine how important such "summits" are in relation to the United Nations - it will be sufficient to take a close look at the G-7. 

The first and most striking observation is that the G-7 doesn't have, in fact, any “teeth” compared to the UN. It only functions sporadically and doesn't have a permanent work force dedicated to organizing its meetings year after year and carrying out the unanimous decisions arrived at, the so-called "resolutions".  

As pointed out on the G-7/Germany website in the FAQ section
That means that it does not adopt resolutions that have direct legal effect. The G7 has neither its own administrative apparatus with a permanent secretariat nor someone who acts as its members’ permanent representative.That is why the rotating presidency is so important.
Indeed, the rotating presidency is key: every year, a new country takes on itself the task of organizing the meeting. After Germany, the following countries will assume the G-7 presidency: 
  1. Japan in 2016
  2. Italy in 2017
  3. Canada in 2018
  4. France in 2019
  5. The USA in 2020
Thus G-7 meetings are "informal" summits and don't follow UN protocol with a chairman, vice-chairman and rules for speaking (for example, calls to limit speaking times etc). They are simply an occasion for heads of state to meet in person in a secluded, secure environment, informally sitting around a table.

Every G-7 agenda covers current issues arising in the global economy and in foreign, security and development policy with the host country free to add topics it wants addressed. At the June 2015 meeting, preparations for two major UN conferences came under consideration:  (1) the  Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris in December and (2) the UN Summit to adopt the post-2015 Agenda for Sustainable Development to be held in New York in September. Germany added to the agenda a series of  health and gender issues, concretely: 

  • Protecting the marine environment, marine biodiversity and environmental sustainability/resource protection;
  • Combating antibiotic resistance and effectively fighting neglected and poverty-related diseases (e.g. Ebola);
  • Factoring in labour, health and environmental protection in retail and supplier chains around the world;
  • Promoting women’s self-employment and supporting the vocational training of women in developing countries. 
To adequately cover those issues, three preparatory meetings were held prior to the G-7 meeting for all participating  ministries directly involved in the above themes:

  • A meeting of the G7 foreign ministers in Lübeck on 14/15 April 2015,
  • A meeting of the G7 energy ministers in Hamburg on 11/12 May 2015,
  • A meeting of the G7 finance ministers in Dresden from 27 to 29 May 2015.
The orchestration of a G-7 meeting, since it lacks a secretariat, is in the hands of government negotiators appointed for the occasion, so-called "sherpas", as explained on the website:
The governments’ chief negotiators, known as sherpas, do the preparatory and follow-up work. They establish on which issues agreement can be reached and where there is still need for discussion, and they prepare the final declarations containing the key outcomes of the summit.
Prof. Lars-Hendrick Rolle (source Wkipedia)
In the case of Germany, the chief sherpa was the economic and financial policy advisor to Ms. Merkel, Prof. Lars-Hendrik Rölle, with a stellar cv, starting as a research assistant in the Economics department, Pennsylvania U. in 1983 and ending as President of the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin (2006-2011) before becoming advisor to the Chancellor.

How expensive is such an exercise?

Obviously very costly considering that in addition to the German government staff, the travel of all participants and the entertainment expenses, it also involves considerable security police - it was reported by the UK Guardian (here) that 17,000 police dotted the forests around Schloss Elmau where the meeting took place, and that President Obama brought a retinue of 2,000 persons (!).

Yet, the G-7 website is diplomatically silent on the subject, merely saying the cost "won’t become apparent until after the summit is over" and Ms. Merkel has strenuously contested that meeting expenses shot over €200 million. So, at the time of writing this post, the cost is still not apparent and if you have any information that might have surfaced in the German press, please share in the comments...

What can the G-7 achieve? This is the more fundamental question and in this regard, the G-7 website waxes poetic:
The decisions the G7 takes in full view of the world have a huge political impact. Experts refer to this as their binding effect. At home, the heads of state and government are also measured by what they achieve and agree at G7 meetings.
A "binding effect", so the "experts" say? Are heads of states and governments really "measured" at home "by what they achieve and agree at G-7 meetings"? One may be permitted doubt it. The UK Guardian defined it as a "26 hour oompah" and noted that the Bavarian people were considerably upset and protesters viewed the meeting as an elitist club of industrial countries pursuing their own interests at the expense of the rest of the world.

Yes, it does sound like much ado about nothing. Yet, there is a linkage with the UN, and a lively one, as highlighted at the G-7 when an "outreach meeting" on the last day of the G-7 in Germany, with major UN organizations invited to participate, notably the UN Secretary General.

The Linkage with the United Nations. This kind of meeting serves to flag the intentions of the big powers (G-7) and important economies (G-20). And that helps UN member countries to jockey in position and decide whether to "follow" the G-7 or G-20 when they next meet at the UN.

This is the point:  membership with the United Nations overlaps and that is what makes those meetings useful and worth following - especially for UN delegates. 

But not only them. 

UN staff is also deeply interested because when Big Powers (G-7) and Big Economies (G-20) indicate priorities in development aid - as the G-7 just did, for example calling for investment in health and  women's education, UN staff working in the technical agencies concerned with women, education and health perk up, hoping that the leaders' good intentions will translate in donor contributions for their own organizations and development projects.

This said, the G-7 and G-20 meetings do not achieve anything more than just that: indicate what official positions will be in any other future UN meetings where “real” decisions are eventually made – meaning decisions with consequences on the ground in terms of action taken. 

To argue that "real decisions" are taken within the United Nations might strike some as absurd - one hears too much in the media about UN failures to take action to believe that somehow the UN is stronger than the G-7 or G-20.

Ebola Challenges the World Health Organization (see Impakter)
Yet this is the case.

Take one recent example: Ebola.

This was uppermost on Ms.Merkel's mind in 2015, along with the other issues, the empowerment of women,  marine pollution, energy efficiency and retail and supply chain standards. Quite a list - but Ebola is high up there. And Germany wants to ensure that there is no repeat in future, that the world is ready to tackle the next epidemic.

In the weeks leading up to the G-7,  Ms. Merkel reportedly had long talks with Sars and Ebola experts handpicked for her by Bill Gates. So UN specialized agencies, when reading the G-7 summit report will take due note of the fact that Germany is strongly behind measures to strengthen the World Health Organization - we all remember how it was notoriously ill-equipped to address the Ebola emergency when it broke out (see my article about the WHO on Impakter, here).

I only have one closing comment, a footnote really: it is a pity the "outreach meeting" at the G-7 included so many heads of the UN, with the IMF, the World Bank and the ILO participating, but left out the World Health Organization...An oversight?

Now that we have established that the G-7 and G-20 cannot replace the United Nations, leaving it the only international organization with the task of addressing global issues, we shall explore in the next series of posts how the UN does it.