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Like the G-7/G-8, which began life as a purely economic club of the world’s biggest economies, the Group of Twenty countries, or G-20, too is evolving from an ad-hoc gathering of select nations to fix the world’s financial and economic woes into an institution concerned with international peace and security. The first-ever meeting of G-20 foreign ministers in Los Cabos, Mexico, this weekend marks this crucial transition.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton (centre) arrives in Los Cabos, Mexico, for the G20 foreign ministers summit. Photo: AP.

But is it, perhaps, too optimistic to assume that the G-20 will succeed where other forums have failed? Yes and no.

It is certainly optimistic to assume that a single meeting, even in tranquil Los Cabos, will be able to overcome the deep divisions between the established powers and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in particular. Nonetheless, the G-20 meeting does offer a useful venue to try and bridge these differences and will be an opportunity for established and re-emerging powers to engage at two levels: strategic and tactical.

At the strategic level, G-20 members can try and explore normative areas of convergence, especially over the concepts of responsibility to protect, given that there was a broad support for the principle (as apparent in UNSC resolutions 1970 and 1973) but serious disagreement on how to implement it.

In addition, the group could also consider the Brazilian idea of “responsibility while protecting" which needs to be elaborated outside the charged atmosphere of UNSC. Moreover, there is also the need to explore the responsibility for post-conflict reconstruction. As the Libyan case has amply demonstrated, a successful military campaign and regime change do not guarantee greater security or better governance for the populace.

Against the backdrop of these broader normative debates, which are likely to continue beyond Los Cabos, there are several tactical issues that require urgent attention. Syria is prominent among them.

Given that there now appears to be overwhelming support for a political transition in Syria, can a common agenda be worked out within the G-20 framework, especially one that takes on board Russian and Chinese sensitivities as well as lessons from the Libyan experience? If such an understanding could be reached in Los Cabos, it could contribute to a more cooperative approach among key powers in UNSC.

Here it is worth remembering that it was a similar G-8 meeting in Berlin in June 1999 that helped to resolve the tensions, particularly between Russia and the US, over the bombing of Kosovo and paved the way for the consensus UNSC resolution 1244 and post-conflict reconstruction. While it could be argued that a G-8 consensus was easier, given the smaller membership, if the G-20 were to achieve a similar breakthrough, it will carry greater conviction given the more representative and diverse nature of the bigger group. The more representative nature of the G-20 would be an important asset in dealing with the gathering storm over Iran.

Finally, given the present stalemate over the UNSC reform process and assuming that this is first of regular G-20 foreign ministers meetings, this forum would be the only venue where the permanent members of UNSC and the aspirant members, notably Brazil, India and South Africa would be able to interact on a regular basis on international peace and security issues.

W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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