Who should the '20' be?
A new membership system to boost the legitimacy of the G20 at a critical time for the global economy

White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama walks with other World leaders following the G-20 family photo at the COEX Center in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 12, 2010.

Article Highlights

  • The Group of Twenty is facing a crisis of its own. @AlexBrill_DC

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  • The G20 cannot achieve adequate legitimacy until it adopts clear criteria for membership.

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  • G20 legitimacy depends on having members capable of improving global financial markets and preventing economic crises.

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Executive Summary Boosting the legitimacy of the G20

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A recent headline on the front page of the New York Times summed up the dire state of the efforts to remedy a weakening global economy: "In Economic Deluge, a World That's Unable to Bail Together."1

A key reason is that the organization established to do the job-the Group of Twenty, or G20-is facing a crisis of its own. On the eve of the June 18-19 meeting of G20 heads of state in Los Cabos, Mexico, critics say that it lacks the necessary will and authority to deal with the immense problems at hand.2

Remarkably, since its founding 13 years ago, the G20 has lacked transparent rules governing its membership. As a result, there has been an erosion of trust among the nearly 200 nations that are not part of the group but are affected by its decisions. Without legitimacy, the G20 cannot lead. This paper makes the case that correcting this deficiency is essential, and that the most important change must be made at the most basic level: the G20 cannot achieve adequate legitimacy until it adopts clear criteria for membership.

This paper identifies specific membership criteria and shows the effect they will have on the G20's composition. Setting clear criteria will be controversial-in part because it will require the replacement of several current members. Such change may be painful, but with another recession beginning in Europe, uncertainty over the future of the euro, sluggish growth in the United States, and weakness among developing economies, reform must happen soon if the G20 is to work constructively to help foster economic growth and financial-market stability.

The G20's legitimacy depends on having as members those nations most capable of improving global financial markets and preventing economic crises. Thus, the specific selection criteria must be based on the three objectives to which G20 heads of state agreed in 2008:
1. Restoring global growth,
2. Strengthening the international financial system, and
3. Reforming international financial institutions.3

With these goals in mind, we conclude that appropriate potential membership criteria should be based on measures of:

  • A country's economic size and global economic importance,
  • A country's adherence to rule of law and other principles consistent with market-based economies, and
  • The size of a country's financial-services sector and the magnitude of inbound and outbound cross-border banking activity (financial interconnectedness).

Using these objective measures, we conclude that:

  • Four current G20 countries do not qualify for membership in the G20. They are, in alphabetical order, Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, and Russia.
  • Four current nonmembers should replace them. They are Malaysia, Norway, Singapore, and Switzerland.
  • These changes assume that the European Union (EU) would continue as a member of the G20 even though it is not a nation but that the number of EU nations in the G20 would be capped at four, as is currently the case.

Our intention in this paper is not to determine the specific hard-and-fast criteria for G20 membership but to offer one rules-based formula among several possibilities and to emphasize the urgency of finding a solution to a crisis of legitimacy.

Alex M. Brill is a research fellow at AEI.  James K. Glassman is the executive director of the George W. Bush Institute  and a member of the Investor Advisory Committee of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

1 Floyd Norris, "In Economic Deluge, a World That's Unable to Bail Together," New York Times, June 3, 2012.
2 In addition to the numerous critical pieces cited later in this paper, see Andrew F. Cooper, "The G20 and Its Regional Critics: The Search for Inclusion," Global Policy 2, no. 2 (May 2011): 203-209.
3 G20, "The Origins and Evolution of the G20," available at www.g20mexico.org/en/the-origins-and-evolution-of-the-g20

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About the Author


  • Alex Brill is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies the impact of tax policy on the US economy as well as the fiscal, economic, and political consequences of tax, budget, health care, retirement security, and trade policies. He also works on health care reform, pharmaceutical spending and drug innovation, and unemployment insurance reform. Brill is the author of a pro-growth proposal to reduce the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, and “The Real Tax Burden: More than Dollars and Cents” (2011), coauthored with Alan D. Viard. He has testified numerous times before Congress on tax policy, labor markets and unemployment insurance, Social Security reform, fiscal stimulus, the manufacturing sector, and biologic drug competition.

    Before joining AEI, Brill served as the policy director and chief economist of the House Ways and Means Committee. Previously, he served on the staff of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. He has also served on the staff of the President's Fiscal Commission (Simpson-Bowles) and the Republican Platform Committee (2008).

    Brill has an M.A. in mathematical finance from Boston University and a B.A. in economics from Tufts University.

  • Phone: 202-862-5931
    Email: alex.brill@aei.org
  • Assistant Info

    Name: Brittany Pineros
    Phone: 202-862-5926
    Email: brittany.pineros@aei.org


James K.
  • James K. Glassman is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on Internet and communications policy in the new AEI Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy.

    A scholar, diplomat, and journalist, Glassman rejoins AEI after having served as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, during which time he led America’s public diplomacy outreach and inaugurated the use of new Internet technology in these efforts, an approach he christened “public diplomacy 2.0.” He was also chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all US government nonmilitary international broadcasting. Most recently, Glassman was instrumental in the creation of the George W. Bush Institute, where he remains the founding executive director.

    Before his government service, Glassman was a senior fellow at AEI, where he specialized in economics and technology and founded The American, AEI’s magazine, which he led as editor-in-chief until his departure from AEI in 2007.

    In addition to his government service, Glassman was a former president of The Atlantic, publisher of The New Republic, executive vice president of US News & World Report, and editor-in-chief and co-owner of Roll Call. As a columnist for The Washington Post, Glassman wrote about political and economic issues. He was also the host of CNN’s “Capital Gang Sunday” and of PBS’s “TechnoPolitics.” In 2000, he cofounded TCS, a technology and policy website. His most recent book is “The Secret Code of the Superior Investor” (Crown Forum).

    Glassman has a B.A. in government from Harvard College where he was a managing editor of The Crimson.


  • Email: jim.glassman@aei.org

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