Vladimir Putin’s claim that liberalism had “become obsolete” contrasts with the ways that liberalism continues to produce practical benefits enjoyed by many societies around the world, even if these benefits are sometimes taken for granted by its beneficiaries and are not shared equally. But it is certainly the case that liberalism is facing mounting credibility problems which have left the door open to criticisms from populist movements in western societies and from leaders of non–liberal states, such as Putin.

These credibility problems are largely self-inflicted by Western neo-liberal policy making and technocratic processes which have led to significant forms of inequality, polarisation and disenchantment in Western societies. These problems are entwined with various forms of public discontent with the existing elites and has led to populist calls for economic nationalism and opposition to globalisation. This has led to an international context where there have been difficulties in developing support for liberal ideas with respect to global forms of governance and a rules-based order in world politics.

This leads to questions as to whether global governance can address these credibility problems. In particular, whether the G20 can act to support liberalism? There are difficulties but some possibilities whereby the G20 can support a rules-based order. While liberal democratic states should cooperate to address common problems and help promote a liberal rules-based order, the G20’s membership and purpose places limits on how well it can support liberalism. Rather, the G20 offers prospects for a broader and more pragmatic conception of a rules-based order.

The difficulties of the G20’s support of liberalism

With regards to the difficulties of the G20’s support for liberalism. First, it is the case that the G20 does not have the capacity or track record to address the whole breadth of liberal ideas. There are many aspects of liberalism—economic liberalism: support for global capitalism by minimising protection and promoting financial coordination, political liberalism: support for democracy and the rule of law, social liberalism: human rights and support for multiculturalism. Liberalism is also associated with the idea of a multilateral rules-based order. There are questions with respect to G20’s capacity to address these aspects. It is only with respect to economic liberalism that the G20 has a significant track record of activity. It is unlikely and unrealistic for the G20 to engage directly with domestic aspects of political and social liberalism.

Second, a difficulty of the G20’s support of a rules-based order stems from its informal nature. The G20 process is not multilateral in the substantive sense: it is more like an informal concert of states like the Concert of Europe rather than the multilateral operation of the United Nations. However, it is more complex than a concert of states given that it does have elements of being a policy making hub with various working groups and outreach groups. The G20 represents an informal form of support for liberal ideas rather than an exemplar of international law. It is important to emphasise that the informal formation of the G20 in 2008 was an explicit recognition that a renewed rules-based order with regards to economic issues was not politically possible.

Third, a key difficulty facing the G20 support for liberalism is that many participating states of the G20 are not liberal. The membership of the G20 is not restricted to liberal democratic states of the G7 but to “economically significant” states. This diversity of states creates opportunities for broader cross-cultural dialogue and coordination, but severely hinders the capacity of the G20 to promote liberal values. Furthermore, given that the G20 develops policy ideas which require domestic implementation, the domestic limitations of the G20 are apparent even if leaders agree or consent to liberal aspirations. Thus, the liberal credentials of the G20 are limited by its non-liberal membership.

The possibilities of the G20’s support of liberalism

The possibilities of the G20’s support of liberalism stem from the specific opportunities of the G20’s role and function in global governance to promote liberal aspirations relating to the stability of globalisation. The G20 represents an important pragmatic opportunity for broadening responsibility for the stability for the global economy and having faith in developing a cross cultural consensus for rules. This opportunity is framed by the ongoing logic of the G20 and its predecessors that members need to “hang together” or “hang separately” in order to address and prevent global crises. In the contemporary context this pragmatism is framed by an awareness of the limits of neo-liberalism and the costs and risks of economic nationalism. Some aspects of this possibility were evident in the Osaka 2019 G20 summit.

First, the G20 is a site for the defence of rules and cooperation in the activity of middle powers operating to develop initiatives in the absence of US leadership. In recent G20 meetings we have seen signs of other western states attempt to defend the importance of rules for specific issues areas. In the Osaka G20 summit, Indonesia defended the multilateral trading system and Australia prompted the G20 to pressure social media companies to stop terrorism and violent extremism being displayed on their platforms.

Second, the G20 is an ongoing site to support efforts to address economic protectionism. The G20’s defence of protectionism is under strain with the US inserting references to “legitimate trade defence instruments” in the 2017 G20 communique alongside the G20‘s long standing references to addressing protectionism. In this sense, the G20’s defence of free trade is certainly under strain but is still ongoing, even though it is essentially about pragmatic damage control rather the defence of sound theory.

Third, the G20 represents a site for debates about reforming and strengthening the Bretton Woods institutions. While there are now severe restrictions placed on such reforms given the policy activity of the Trump administration, the G20 continues to discuss this issue. This was evident in the Osaka declaration when it claimed that “We reaffirm our support for the necessary reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to improve its functions”.

Fourth, the G20 has supported the Sustainable Development Goals established by the United Nations in 2015. Ongoing engagement with the goals represents an opportunity for the G20 to have an informal framework of rules that addresses the stability of globalisation in a way that embraces a human development and sustainable development ideas. These rules are not formal laws nor are they neo-liberal ones that liberals of the last few decades have supported, but they are the types of rules where there may be ongoing support from across the membership of the G20 and states beyond.

While the G20 offers limited prospects for a liberal rules-based order, it still offers prospects for a broader and more pragmatic rule-based order. There are members of the G20 that do want a rules-based order, but the type of rules is a topic of debate. Going forward, we cannot assume that liberal rules are the only type of rules that will help stabilise globalisation.


Steven Slaughter is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Deakin University. This commentary is informed by discussions had at the Griffith Asia Institute 9th Annual Australia-Japan Dialogue, themed The G20: Outcomes, Issues and Prospects, held in Brisbane 29 November 2019.