The G-20 Is a (Slightly Dysfunctional) Family

Sure, there’s conflict. But that’s not the whole story.

Like Thanksgiving, but with lots more flags.

Photographer: SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP/Getty Images

Next week’s meeting of G-20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Germany hasn’t yet begun, but the conflicts have already started. Observers expect a heated debate about trade at the first meeting attended by representatives of the Trump administration: Trump’s trade adviser and the German finance minister have already gotten into a spat, and a draft communique obtained by Reuters suggests the G-20 may stop explicitly rejecting competitive currency devaluations and protectionism.

Given the way the media presents the G-20 as an arena for conflict, the Trump administration can hardly be blamed for viewing the summit as a venue for competition among countries. But both the press and the administration are wrong.

When I served as Treasury spokesperson for international affairs in the Obama administration, I learned that discussions at the G-20 often aren’t zero-sum. G-20 finance ministers all share the same goal: global growth. But domestic economic reform is often extraordinarily painful and unpopular. It would be so much easier for each country if they could instead get other countries to put their own economies in order, and then enjoy the stronger global economy that would result. So, that’s often what they try to do.

The conflict that ensues at these meetings isn’t surprising. But the fact that countries often encourage other nations to implement reforms that would leave them stronger over the long run while trying to avoid reform themselves -- in other words, so that they can stay weaker -- really is. Save for maybe satellite states, it’s the opposite of what most mainstream international relations theories would predict.

Luckily, however, I grew up in a family -- the perfect model for understanding the G-20. Each ministerial (diplomatic-speak for a meeting of ministers) begins with a family photo, followed by negotiations. The negotiations are like a holiday dinner, sans turkey. Participants are expected to engage in civil discussion. This doesn’t always happen. But, like a biological family, there’s no alternative to dealing with these people. The G-20 has no exit mechanism. 

A family also tries to socialize behavior. Just as my mom taught my siblings and me to ask to be excused before leaving the dinner table, the U.S. uses these discussions to try to promote its preferred norms, such as refraining from currency manipulation. 

Above all, the G-20 is like a family because everyone tells each other what they should be doing. While self-interest is invariably involved, the recommendations -- such as reducing debt or strengthening regulation of financial markets -- are also usually motivated by a genuine desire to see other economies grow healthier and stronger. For example, the G-20 has for years been encouraging European members to act more forcefully to address the euro zone’s debt crisis. Given the presence of U.S. rivals like China, who are approached very differently in other forums, this is truly remarkable.

However, the absence of underlying conflict doesn’t make for a great story. So, reporters covering the summit look for a different angle. When I worked for the Treasury, nothing could strike greater fear into the hearts of my colleagues than the prospect of the U.S. being branded as a loser in international negotiations -- and American weakness abroad headlining the next day’s papers. To avoid this, preparation for each meeting of G-20 finance ministers began with a brainstorming session on what “shiny object” we could come up with for reporters to cover. No idea was too crazy for consideration. When Mexico began hosting the meetings in 2012 and we learned that the Secret Service would be sending a counter-assault team with us for extra security, a senior official joked how helpful a kidnapping attempt at the meeting could be -- provided, of course, that no one got hurt.

But just as the media often misses the real story at G-20 meetings, the Trump administration would be wrong to create conflicts by pursuing protectionist policies. That’s because the U.S. relies on the strength of major trading partners like China and Europe, which it needs to purchase American goods and buoy the global economy. As Kenneth Rapoza recently noted in Forbes, “For generations, the global influence of the U.S. was captured by the old adage that ‘when America sneezes, the world catches a cold.’ Today, those symptoms now appear when China does the same.”

The best way for the Trump administration to view the other members of the G-20 is as family, not foes. Too bad that’s not eye-catching enough for an A1 headline.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Kara Alaimo at

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