This G20 summit could accelerate the decline of America’s power on the world stage

IN NEW DELHI – When historians look back on this weekend’s G20 Summit in New Delhi, one little-noticed image may move centre-stage.

On Saturday afternoon, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, hosted a photo-op with the Brazilian President, Inacio Lula da Silva, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, and US President, Joe Biden. The picture brings together India, the nation that hosted this year’s summit, with the countries that will host the next three: Brazil in 2024, South Africa in 2025 and the USA the following year.

It will be another three years before an American President has the chance to wield the G20 gavel, and if the outcome of this year’s summit is anything to go by, the group will have changed immeasurably by then.

White House officials travelling with President Biden insist there were many big wins for his administration here. Biden himself hailed the creation of the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor as a “big deal”, and one that he hopes will soon help rival the massive development activity of China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiative.

The White House says the rail and shipping corridor will “stimulate economic development through enhanced connectivity and economic integration across two continents”, but US officials also know that they’re playing a game of catch-up with the Chinese after Beijing funded more than $67 billion (£54bn) in projects in the 10 years since “Belt and Road” began.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, at a press conference during the G20 summit (Photo: Francis Mascarenhas/ Reuters)

US officials defended their agreement to back diluted language on Russia’s war against Ukraine contained in the “Delhi Declaration”, the 83-point communiqué that emerged from the weekend’s summit. But the joint declaration’s failure specifically to include any criticism of Russia, noting instead the “suffering” of the Ukrainian people, infuriated the government in Kyiv.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman complained that the final accord is “nothing to be proud of”, even as the US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, insisted “it does a very good job of standing up for the principle that states cannot use force to seek territorial acquisition”. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who attended the summit in President Vladimir Putin’s place, reportedly played a major role negotiating the declaration’s final text with Indian officials, despite being sanctioned for over a year by the United States.

In other areas, the Delhi summit may also accelerate the loss of more US ground on the world stage, even while it continues to urge liberal democracies to band together and stand up to Russia and China.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) hands over the gavel to Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) during the third working session of the G20 Leaders' Summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called an end September 10, to the G20 summit in New Delhi by passing on a ceremonial gavel to Brazil, which will take the bloc's presidency. (Photo by PIB / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE (Photo by -/PIB/AFP via Getty Images)
Narendra Modi hands over the ceremonial gavel to President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, which will take the G20 presidency (Photo by PIB / AFP)

The accession of the African Union (AU) to permanent membership of the G20 was symbolised by India’s foreign minister personally escorting Azali Assoumani, the AU’s Chairperson, to a seat at the G20’s top table on Saturday. The White House is frustrated that so many AU members have resisted American urgings to criticise Russia’s savagery in Ukraine, and continue to trade willingly in Moscow’s oil. Despite President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vehement denials, US officials still believe that South Africa provided Russia with weapons late last year.

Modi spent the past year using his G20 presidency not only to promote India’s ascendancy on the world stage and cement his own political position at home, but also to urge the group to prioritise the interests of the Global South. On Sunday, when he handed the gavel over to President Lula da Silva, it became immediately clear that Brazil plans to use its G20 Presidency in a similar manner.

Pledging to lead the body in an “inclusive and coherent manner”, he vowed not to “let geopolitical issues hijack the…agenda”. Calling the foreign debt of the world’s poorest nations “unbearable”, he also called on the G20 to back wholesale reform of the United Nations so that the Security Council may “count on the presence of new, developing countries among its permanent and non-permanent members”. In April, Lula visited China where he assailed the global hegemony of the American dollar.

The road from Delhi to Rio will be paved with the developing world’s determined intentions. It will also be paved with complexities for Biden, who can only hope that he will still be in the White House when 2026 arrives and America gets its next opportunity to clutch the G20 gavel.