How to read the G20 Communique – some thoughts

April 2, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

Had a great day yesterday meeting my fellow g20voice bloggers, a wonderfully diverse crew from every corner of the world who will be blogging furiously at the G20 summit today. I led a discussion on how to read the communiqué that should emerge some time this afternoon: this can be pretty stressful, since they are written in diplomatic code and pundits are expected to come up with an almost instantaneous assessment within minutes. Here are some ideas (but I’m no expert, so if there are any more seasoned summit junkies out there, please feel free to add your own):

1. Read it all: it’s surprising how many journalists and NGOs pass judgement after the quickest skim of a document. You may be trying to get your spin in first, but it’s risky – you’ll regret it if you overlook some important detail or accompanying document (eg today’s document is likely to have lots of detail on tax haven reform in the annex).

2. Decide on Scope: Are you going to give an overall judgement, discuss in detail the parts your are most interested in, or both? Policy wonks can too easily get sucked into the detail, when what a journo or the general public want to know is ‘is it any good?’ If you really want press coverage, you can keep it simple and give it marks out of ten, but that leaves you with very little wiggle room and (usually) lots of enemies among those who disagree with you!

3. Get your tone right: Play it straight – welcome what is good, criticise what is bad. Avoid sentences that start with a grudging ‘even the World Bank/IMF/government admits etc etc’ – they sound sour, add nothing, and alienate potential allies in the institution concerned.

4. Spot the gaps: the hardest part is to identify what is not in the text, but that’s often the most important. Eg in today’s G20 communique, where is the UN system or anything on exchange rates?

5. Decode Diplomat-speak: communiqués are as much about tone as specific dates and numbers, and for tone, words matter. Take shall v should, for example. If a communiqué says ‘shall’ that means it has to happen, ‘should’ is just what sherpas (the civil servants who prepare for summits) call ‘best endeavours’ language – a wish, but not a commitment.

Strong language: ‘commitment’, ‘will’, ‘shall’, ‘agree that’, ‘take action’
Weak language: ‘should’,‘with the aim of’, ‘towards the goal of’, ‘best possible’, ‘appropriate’, ‘explore’, ‘encourage’

Best of luck – we’re expecting the G20 communiqué to be released around 3.30 (that’s when the final press conference is scheduled), so you’ll have something to practice on by the end of today.