South Korea in the G-20 Spotlight

CAMBRIDGE – South Korea has an historic opportunity when it chairs the G-20 meeting in Seoul on November 11-12, for this will be the first time that a non-G-7 country has hosted the G-20 since the larger body supplanted the G-7 as the steering committee of the world economy. But there is a danger that the G-20 will now prove too unwieldy. 

South Korea justifiably views its role as host as another opportunity to mark its arrival on the world stage. But it should make more of its opportunity than this, and instead exercise substantive leadership. Otherwise, its turn at the G-20’s helm risks resembling the chaotic Czech presidency of the European Union in 2009, which confirmed some larger EU members’ belief that it is a mistake to let smaller countries do the driving.

The challenge for South Korea stems from the inevitable tradeoff between legitimacy and workability. The G-7 was small enough to be workable, but too small to claim legitimacy. The United Nations is big enough to claim legitimacy, but too big to be workable.

The G-20 has enough legitimacy for its purpose – which is more limited than the purposes of formal institutions such as the UN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization – by virtue of the fact that it accounts for 85% of the world’s GDP, for example.