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26 Mar, 2020 04:51

First of its kind ‘Virtual G20’: Can world leaders agree on a global response to Covid-19 with online diplomacy?

First of its kind ‘Virtual G20’: Can world leaders agree on a global response to Covid-19 with online diplomacy?

Heads of state will meet for a ‘Virtual G20’ summit in a few hours to work out a global response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It comes as markets crash, supply chains falter, and a worldwide economic downturn looms.

For the first time in history, there will be no government planes touching down in the host city, no police blocking roads, no hotels full to the brim with the bodyguards of world leaders —  and no anti-globalist protesters lining the streets.

The question is — can an online meeting really work to deliver solutions?

Creative alternative

A traditional in-person summit was originally slated to be hosted by Saudi Arabia in November, but the suggestion that Riyadh could host an ‘online’ G20 — first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — was quickly taken up by other world leaders as an innovative way to forge ahead with efforts to strategize amidst a worsening global disaster. Australian PM Scott Morrison praised Modi’s plan as a “commendable initiative” as other leaders from the UK’s Boris Johnson to Russia’s Vladimir Putin jumped on board. 

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It is a sign of the extraordinary times, that leaders like Germany’s Angel Merkel and Canada’s Justin Trudeau will be taking part from “self-isolation” in their homes, having both been in contact with people who tested positive for the virus. Another unique feature of the historic meeting is that Covid-19 and its impacts will be the only item on the agenda — a stark contrast to ordinary G20 summits, at which an array of issues are always brought to the table.

In a statement on the teleconference, Riyadh said leaders would seek to advance a “coordinated set of policies” to “alleviate the impact” of the pandemic and “safeguard the global economy.” The summit will build on efforts made by G20 finance ministers who took part in their own virtual meet-up on Monday — though no joint declaration came from that meeting as the US and China continued to bicker over the question of who might be more ‘responsible’ for the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

Futile squabbling?

It is this squabbling between Washington and Beijing which could continue to hamper efforts to agree a coordinated response as the Covid-19 virus rips through Europe, forcing national lockdowns, unprecedented travel restrictions and threatens to spiral out of control in the US — which now has the potential to become the next epicenter of the outbreak, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As it stands, China, where the outbreak began, has seen more than 81,000 cases of the virus and over 3,200 deaths. The US has reported over 54,450 cases and 737 deaths.

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While US President Donald Trump and other administration officials continue to refer to Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus” and frame the country as a threat to global security, Beijing officials have accused the US Army of having imported the virus to China. As the two powers engage in a war of words, other countries are appealing for more constructive diplomatic communication.

For Shishir Upadhyaya, an Indian defense and strategic affairs expert, the fact that the virtual meet-up is happening at the suggestion of New Delhi “underscores India’s rise in the evolving global order” and points to a failure of leadership by Washington.

“Quite obviously the pandemic requires a multilateral approach and global leadership to deal with the impending human and economic crises,” Upadhyaya told RT. The online G20 has the potential to “build confidence” within the international community that the situation is being tackled efficiently.

Upadhyaya said the pandemic had exposed how unprepared the US was to deal with a crisis of this magnitude domestically and Trump’s “instinct to go it alone” may mark the moment when the US “lost its position” as a top world leader.

Indeed, it is China that seems to be earning itself more international goodwill as the crisis continues; sending its medics to help other hard hit countries, as well as masks and testing kits. “Beijing’s international standing has only been helped by floundering in Washington, and Donald Trump’s determination to indulge in a nationalistic blame game,” the Guardian’s diplomatic editor wrote of the stand-off. Meanwhile, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce John W H Denton wrote in a letter to the Financial Times that “it’s time for leaders to put past squabbles aside and agree on a comprehensive action plan.”

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Coordinated response possible?

An agreement on a global fiscal response to the crisis is possible, “but probably not at this meeting,” Roberto Castaldi, research director at the International Centre for European and Global Governance, told RT.

Castaldi said that world leaders “usually don't agree on anything” unless the issue is one which will have a massive impact on a global level — and the Covid-19 crisis certainly meets that criteria. 

“This is the first meeting in which they are discussing the issue [of fiscal response], so there will be some countries that will highlight the issue and try to work for a consensus,” he said, adding that an agreement may not come until it is clear that everyone is in the same boat. 

Castaldi offered the example of the lax European Union response to the crisis in the early stages, before its top leaders realized that all countries, not just Italy, were going to feel the impact. Italy, which quickly overtook China as the epicenter of the pandemic has recorded  74,386 cases and over 7,500 deaths — but it appears increasingly likely that other EU countries, including possibly the UK, could follow the same trajectory.

When it looked like Covid-19 was an Italian problem within Europe, there was no strong response from Brussels, Castaldi said, “but when it was clear that the rest [of Europe] was following the same path, we had massive action by the European Central Bank and European Commission.”

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Henning Vöpel, professor of economics at the HSBA Hamburg School of Business Administration, is less optimistic about an agreement. “We don’t even see a European-wide consensus or cooperation in combating the virus that would be required,” he told RT. “Not only in terms of fiscal policy but more importantly with regard to coordinating across-borders action plans.” Additionally, he said, the fiscal space to do so “varies significantly” across countries.

On the other hand, Vöpel said the virtual format of the meeting could prove successful in itself and perhaps even serve as a “more accepted and efficient” model going forward.

While safeguarding the global economy will be the main item on the agenda, leaders must not forget it is ultimately a health crisis they are dealing with — and none of the G20 leaders at the virtual table has ever been a doctor, a nurse or other public health official, John Kirton, co-founder of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, told RT.

“I think and I certainly hope they’ll invite Dr. Tedros [Adhanom Ghebreyesus], the head of the World Health Organization to give them that hardcore medical and public health advice that they need and that they’ll listen to him when he speaks,” Kirton said.

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