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Architects of G20: Sarkozy and Singh

By Sanjaya Baru
Last updated on: June 14, 2010 13:17 IST
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France and India have become partners in building a multipolar world, French President Nicholas Sarkozy's adviser tells Sanjaya Baru.

A month before the Lehman Brothers' collapse moved the tectonic plates of the global economy, Japan's Sherpa to the 2008 G8 summit, Masaharu Kohno, told an audience at Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy that the original G7 had made a mistake by bringing in Russia to create a G8. He didn't see Russia as being ready to help the G7 manage the global economy.

In saying so, Mr Kohno revealed why Japan had dragged its feet over the role of the so-called "outreach countries", the G5, in the 2008 Hokkaido summit of G8. Left to itself, Japan would have gone back to the original format of the G7 or, at best, invited a few leaders of the developing world for tea and a polite conversation.

In the event, however, it was Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's veiled threat to boycott the Hokkaido summit if it becomes a repetition of the 2007 Heiligendamm summit, and the support his stance got from Brazil, China and South Africa that prompted Japan to ensure greater participation of the so-called "emerging economies".

The French take justifiable credit for using the 2003 Evian G8 summit to invite "emerging powers" like China and India to the G8 for a dialogue rather than to deliver homilies. Neither the Gleneagles summit (2006) nor Heiligendamm stayed this course on the role of the "outreach" countries.

Returning home from Heiligendamm, Dr Singh complained that the format of the G8+5 meetings was less than satisfactory. While his threat to boycott the Hokkaido summit helped retain that format, the G8 was not yet ready, even a month before Lehman, to engage China and India in a serious discussion on the management of the global economy.

The one G8 leader who correctly sensed the irritation of India and the G5 was France's President Nicholas Sarkozy. Recollecting those difficult days of 2008, Mr Sarkozy's key diplomatic adviser Jean-David Levitte told me last week in Paris that it was Mr Sarkozy who called up US President George Bush and suggested that the time had come to end the charade of the G8+5 and go in for a more meaningful format that would enable the US and the European Union to seriously engage China and India in a discussion on global economic management.

The first call was made immediately after the Lehman collapse. President Bush rejected the idea saying that it was the responsibility of the US government to clean up the post-Lehman mess, and there was nothing others could do to help.

As things got worse, Mr Sarkozy called again and got the same reply. It was in mid-October that Mr Sarkozy made his third attempt to convince Mr Bush that a global response was needed to manage what, by then, had clearly become a global crisis.

Cutting short a visit to Canada, recalls Mr Levitte, Mr Sarkozy flew down to Camp David. He was joined by the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. The three addressed a joint press conference at which Mr Bush announced that he would soon be convening a global conference of major economies to discuss the financial crisis and seek a coordinated response. Thus was born the G20 summit.

When Mr Sarkozy returns to Toronto later this month for the G20 summit, he would naturally recall his last visit and that last-ditch flight to the US with some satisfaction. At the end of an hour-long conversation with Mr Levitte in an impressively elegant corner of the Elysee Palace in Paris, it became clear to me that the true architects of the G20 process are indeed President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Singh. Dr Singh voiced the impatience of the G5, Mr Sarkozy forced the G8, especially the US, to listen.

Mr Levitte is proud of these facts. He believes France enjoys a unique position in the world - as a leader of the EU, a friend of developed economies like the US and Canada, and, at the same time, a friend of the developing world, especially India. "We two are the world's oldest and biggest democracies," he says, repeatedly referring to the growing intimacy of high level contact between Mr Sarkozy and Dr Singh.

"France and India talk to each other all the time about a wide range of issues," he says, listing the global economy, climate change, nuclear energy, Afghanistan, terrorism and world trade among them. Mr Levitte believes French companies are doing well in India and hopes investment in nuclear energy, space and defence industries will cement a closer strategic relationship.

I remind him of Dr Singh's observation that India has no complaints about the French leadership at the International Monetary Fund. His smile is broad! He may well want IMF's Dominique Strauss-Kahn to continue doing his good work at the Fund and not return to Paris to challenge the incumbent Mr Sarkozy!

He is far too experienced a diplomat to say anything of the kind, having been France's ambassador to the US and the UN, and now slated to head a proposed French National Security Council. Mr Levitte is credited with cementing closer US-France relations during the Bush era - a good background for attempting the same with India!

Mr Levitte says that Mr Sarkozy will use his chairmanship of the G20 in 2011 to further strengthen the grouping as an effective institution of global governance. Mr Levitte is deeply committed to France's view of a multipolar world. He sees the G20 as a logical by-product of the unfolding of that world view and Indo-French partnership as vital to its success.

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