The G-20's formality problem

While Eurozone finance ministers put the final touches on another stop-gap measure for Greece, the foreign ministers of the G-20 met in Los Cabos, Mexico under a blanket of heavy security. Nobody expected all that much from the meeting and it appears that not much occurred. It was reported that only nine of the G-20's foreign ministers attended the event, with ministerial no-shows including Russia, China, and India. 

Even with the size of the gathering reduced, the photo accompanying this story speaks volumes about a problem for the G-20: the often stifling formality of an initiative designed in large part to foster informal contacts between senior leaders of the world's most powerful countries (I'm not sure a meeting titled an "Informal Meeting," emblazoned with a logo, and equipped with a dais can really be informal).

The G-20 finance ministers will meet this weekend in Mexico City, with the Eurozone crisis as the leading topic. Statements from key players such as Japan, however, already suggest that the group will not break much new ground:

The G20 is not yet ready to agree on providing more funds to the International Monetary Fund to fight Europe's debt crisis, Japan's finance minister said Tuesday ahead of a key meeting this weekend.

The Group of 20 nations "are not yet in a situation where they are moving in the same direction and are about to decide specific amounts" of additional funding for the IMF, Jun Azumi said at a news conference.

The Multilateralist

U.S. sides with Russia, China and Syria on arms trade treaty

In one part of the United Nations complex this week, the United States was inveighing against China and Russia for its defense of the Syrian regime. In another, it was much more quietly siding with those governments. The issue was the groundrules for the planned July conference to draft a global arms trade treaty. The key question was whether that conference would run by consensus, a process that effectively awards every participant a veto. Lou Charbonneau of Reuters reported on the debate.

The United States, Russia, China, Syria, Iran and others pushing for unanimity have argued that the only way to ensure universal compliance is to get all countries on board. Those who dislike the virtual veto, like Mexico and some European countries, believe it could mean that whatever treaty is agreed on in July - if there is one - will be weak.

"As we have seen in the case of Syria, veto power leads to inaction and hampers the ability of the international community to prevent conflict," said Jeff Abramson of the group Control Arms. He was referring to Russia's and China's veto of two U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Syria's crackdown.

In the end, participants at this week's discussions at U.N. headquarters agreed that decisions at the drafting conference in July would be taken by consensus. A senior U.S. official described the veto as "the nuclear option" - a last resort.

The question of whether international treaties are negotiated on a consensus basis has become a pressing issue in recent years. During the 1990s, the land mines convention and the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court were both finalized without the support of key powers--including the United States. In both those cases, the Clinton administration failed to develop a coherent strategy for the negotiations and was ultimately unable to get the changes it sought. Because there was no firm rule that the draft text had to be adopted by consensus, the United States was badly outvoted in both cases, producing public-relations disasters. By insisting on consensus, the Obama administration appears determined to avoid a similar outcome.

The arms trade treaty negotiations will take place just as the 2012 campaign enters high gear, and conservative legislators are already warning that the Obama administration will attempt to impose restrictions on gun rights via the treaty.