How to talk about the big picture

How to talk about the big picture

What would you do if someone asked you to summarize the major tensions of human beings on this blue planet of ours? I’m talking about the big, systemic issues – the problems of capitalism, war, climate change and development. These things are too complicated for any one person or single generation to solve. 

Luckily though, there are neat summaries of world leaders trying to do just that: The G-7 and G-20 communiques. This past June, the “Group of 7” met in Germany and produced such a document. Remember that the G-7 added Russia after the Cold War, but suspended the country in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. The G-20, meanwhile, is the G-7 plus “systemically important” countries such as China, India, Mexico, and yes, Turkey. 

Both of these groups organize summits with their leaders, the results of which are then published in a Leaders Communique. Comparing these – even in format alone – reveals a striking summary of the differences between the so-called “West and the Rest.” 

First, there are 5,035 words in the G-7 communique from this June. The G-20 Communique of Brisbane last year, on the other hand, has just 1,919 words. The G-20 text used to be a lot longer, but the Australian presidency mercifully cut it down to size. The G-7 has not felt the need to do that, probably because its negotiations are not so painful. So when the number of leaders increases, the number of words in the final text declines, because it becomes harder to agree on things. 

There is also a second issue related to this comparison. The G-7 communique is organized under subheadings and composed in relatively free-flowing paragraphs, whereas the G-20 text is composed of numbered paragraphs with somewhat incoherent sentences. You can tell that the bureaucratic struggle during the G-20 text’s negotiation overrode any sense of style and readability. I think that is because it is harder to come to a mutual understanding when the West meets the Rest. The more narrow your format, the easier it is to negotiate common ground. 

Thirdly, the G-7 communique touches upon highly contentious issues like climate change and foreign policy. It actually even touches on the war in Syria and carbon emissions. No G-20 bureaucrat would get close to issues like that, least of all in the leaders communique. 

The G-20 agenda has always been more operational than transformational. Why? Because the G-20 emerged out of the 1997 financial crisis as a ministerial gathering and turned into a leaders summit with the 2008 global financial crisis. That means that solving the operational problems of the global financial system has always been at its core. That was what made G-20 relevant for the West. Now the Rest wants the G-20 to become more relevant to solving its problems. 

So how could the G-20 be more useful to the developing world; that is, how could it be more useful to the rest of us? I think it has to take a leap into a more transformational agenda. This year’s Turkish presidency of the G-20 has so far not changed the operational focus. Yes, the group is more inclusive, but it remains totally operational, rather than transformational. It has yet to make small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and low income developing countries (LIDCs) part of the system. This is not merely about changing the system, mind you. Transformation should be about questioning the way things are. 

Why, for example, do we in Turkey need to send our containers to Germany or Denmark for our goods to reach Pakistan? I know it’s because that’s where the huge container ports are, and that’s how trade routes were established centuries ago. But again, why?