IT’S THE INEVITABILITY of idealism that brings a sense of fraternity to countries otherwise separated by national interests. They come together on the realisation that the rewards of unity are not merely symbolic and what they can achieve by sending out a message in one voice is immense in maintaining the global balance of power. Groupings necessitated by the world’s bad instincts and unpredictability may begin as a mobilisation of virtue, grow as an influential talking shop, and may end up stagnating in an exhaustion of idealism and the outbursts of individual recklessness, but, in the end, they serve a purpose: persuasion is power when played out in the plural.
As groupings go, nothing rivals G20 in size and diversity. It brings together the world’s largest and oldest democracies, nations built on freedom and equality, strictly controlled civil societies with leaders seeking an eternal mandate, the wealthiest and the paranoid, tired superpowers and challengers of the old order, and rulers with varying degrees of commitment to liberal values… The geographical space it covers, the marketplace it encompasses, and the cultural dividends it offers, make G20 a worthy representation of multipolarity. And no need to underline the fact that by hosting its 18th summit in Delhi, India is also showcasing its place in the world—its journey from the ideologically barren Third Worldism to hyper-internationalism.
That’s the lofty part. The same ideas that bring together nations can become problematic for some members for whom coexistence merits nothing more than a rhetorical fig leaf. Wallowing in hurt and humiliation, they have built a system of geopolitical vengeance and extraterritorial aggression to terrifying perfection, and its sustenance requires a captive people fed on nationalist fairy tales. Two such members are absent from the Delhi summit.
If Putin embodies everything that diminishes the ideals on which a grouping like G20 is built, Xi singularly represents the brazenness with which any trace of international morality can be repudiated
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Vladimir Putin is staying put in Moscow because he can’t afford the company of certain leaders at the summit. His war against Ukraine, whose right to exist he sees as a threat to the neo-Tsarist fantasies he is currently struggling to fulfil with Stalinist style, is a war against what he considers a rotten Western value system as well. He can’t be there in the company of men who have restricted his powers to restore the glory that was buried with the Soviet empire, the memory of which still propels him, even as he finds himself as a man out of a Russian novel, fighting multiple wars, within and without, the ultimate victory increasingly looking like the fighter’s own redundancy. There is no grouping that can make him feel wanted, and there is no leader whose unconditional support he can take for granted. When a ruler takes refuge in his own shadow, and compensates for his isolation by conjuring up enemies everywhere, he cannot count on anyone.
Not even Xi Jinping, the other prominent absentee at the Delhi summit. Unlike Putin, Xi can be in any grouping and nobody will dare to avoid him. He is perhaps the singular foreign leader who influences, for better or worse, the lives of other nations the most. The G20 host knows a few things about his policy of perpetual turmoil on the border. And he has not ruled out surprising the Ukraine-weary world with a bigger and darker oriental show featuring Taiwan. Temptations of diversionary horror peak when the bad news at home diminishes the manufactured aura of invincibility. Xi, the most influential Chinese leader after Mao and Deng, is in such a phase in his career. It was Deng who had created the marketplace on which his successors could build their most prosperous dictatorship on Earth. Just imagine the ignominy of ending up as the leader who presided over the unravelling of the Dengist modernisation. Xi, the man who wanted to give the Chinese a dream bigger than the American Dream, is in danger of becoming that leader. The cracks in the Chinese economy are widening so fast that Xi, despite being the architect of the world’s tallest panopticon, may face the biggest wave of resentment. The world can wait; he has homework to finish before taking another stab at eternity.
The big two absentees take away nothing from the summit. The presence of the Russian would have been a moral contradiction no post-summit communiqué could have whitewashed. If Putin embodies everything that diminishes the ideals on which a grouping like G20 is built, Xi singularly represents the brazenness with which any trace of international morality can be repudiated. G20-minus-two works better for the world.