The Second World's Debutante Ball

The genesis of the G7 was a cigars-in-the-backroom kind of affair. Finance ministers from the US, Britain, France and Germany gathered in the White House Library one day in 1973 to discuss interest and exchange rates, flying so far under the radar they didn't even record minutes. (As their meetings became more regular, they dubbed themselves the "Library Group"). Two years later, the G7's first formal summit took place at an elusive country house, the Château de Rambouillet, located 30 miles outside of Paris. Rambouillet's guests concluded that such summits should never be "institutionalized" if they were to maintain their intent.

So much for that idea. Next week's G20 is where the action's at, and it's as institutional as can be. The fun takes place at London's ExCel conference center, where the world's leaders will sit through plenary sessions, working meals, and press conferences chatting about plans their ministers already cooked up in private sessions weeks earlier. No wonder; the guest list adds up to about 3,500 people: 20 delegates from each country, 2,500 journalists, bodyguards, translators, and sundry other officials. In addition, the UN secretary general, the president of the European commisison, Thailand (as chairman of Association of South East Asian Nations), and Ethiopia (as chairman the New Partnership for Africa's Development) are also attending.

That kind of representation is surely reason to celebrate. Put together, the G20 countries represent 90 percent of global GDP and 80 percent of world trade; why shouldn't they get a seat at the table? (Ahem, Security Council?). But there's more to it than that. As fellow blogger Rana Foroohar points out in her cover story for the international edition this week, compared to their old-money counterparts, the BRIC countries are doing just fine these days. And they're demanding a global economic system less dominated by America and its wealthy pals.

See Exhibit A: China's decision to go on the offensive this week with calls for a brand new global currency to replace the U.S. dollar in the world's central reserves. While observers are dismissing the idea as positively zany, China's choice to put it out there two days before the summit is bold, to say the least. Rather than gentlemanly discussion of common interest, it looks like we're seeing a whole lot of posturing.

So, sure, it's no shock that a bigger tent has its downsides. Too many voices in a room can create the kind of deafening cacophony that prevents very much from being accomplished--especially when those twenty voices belong to some of the most powerful and outspoken folks on the planet.

But here's a sobering reality check about that inaction. I recently chatted with Laurie Garrett, who runs the global health section at CFR, about how the power shift affects her work. It ain't good. Back in the glory days of the G7, she said, summits consisted of a few rich countries that sat around trading expertise and guilt-tripping each other about poor countries. Adding countries like Brazil and India, which still retain some of the nastiest attributes of third-world poverty, has diluted the power of those centralized institutions. Now, the G20 holds the cards. But how much does India do about its own people's malnutrition, never mind the malnutrition of people in, say, Tanzania? For certain governments whose public health programs are almost entirely funded by donor contributions, that could be one heck of a problem.