“G8 is dead, long live G20” seemed the cry last autumn when the global financial crisis first saw its leaders gather in Washington DC. They displayed goodwill, commendable unanimity and even a sort of team spirit. There were none of the squabbles that had hamstrung the WTO’s Doha Round and there were no UN Security Council style vetoes, even if protectionism is easier to fight in international fora than at home. Since then the G20, most people seem to agree, has established itself as about the right size and more or less the right composition of nations to address the financial and economic woes of the globalised world. And now that it’s made its debut in the economic arena, can the G20 improve the international security landscape?

Hopes of a just and secure world have long been pinned on the idea of the more powerful states burying the hatchet among themselves and jointly policing our unstable world. In the first half of the 19th century the post-1815 Holy Alliance of Britain, Austria, Russia and France brought peace, but it was hardly accompanied by justice. The post-World War I League of Nations fared worse, with some of key players like Germany, Russia and America either excluded or staying away from it. The United Nations, with its five permanent members of the Security Council, long paralysed by Cold War divisions, has been unable to regain its statutory role of guardian of world peace and security, and all attempts at its reform have merely weakened it. So, Eureka! Perhaps we are about to see great leap forward from P5 to G20.

But before we consider a security-minded G20, we’ll need to see what makes the economic and financial G20 tick. The first thing is the global nature of today’s economy, with its high degree of integration and inter-dependence. One need only look at what some call “Chimerica” and others G2, and compare that with the bi-polar adversity of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation. The second element is the almost complete triumph of capitalism – in all its forms and varieties. Even Gazprom and Rosneft care about their capitalisation. And third there is the use of basically the same language by the world’s financial and economic elites, whether they happen to be in Wall Street or the City of London, Shanghai or Sao Paolo, Delhi or Dubai. Last, there’s the hard-nosed realism that both objective and subjective indicators of economic performance dictate, whether in terms of comparable GDP figures, economic growth rates and business statistics, or by way of competitiveness ratings, corruption indexes or measurable scientific and technological prowess and capacity for innovation.

The security world, by contrast, remains a patchwork. Despite the mantra of security indivisibility, it is compartmentalised even if the compartments are anything but watertight. As far as most Muscovites were concerned, Russia’s Chechen war might have well been fought on the moon. Despite their governments’ decade-long commitment there, Afghanistan for most Americans and Europeans, is still a faraway land of which most people know very little and understand even less. It took a monumental effort to call Americans’ attention to Darfur, and in the 1990s Rwanda, fared even less well. The world’s current problems with Somalia stop at its coastline. Twenty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “End of History” may certainly have swept away the last major obstacles to capitalism, but did not produce a single international community. That term stands today for the democratic West, which has expanded but has also advanced almost to the limits of its integration capacity. The creation of a truly global community of nations will take an epoch and meanwhile the political language most national leaders use will continue to be – national. Even in the 21st century, that language too often features the traditional notions of power and glory, pride and prejudice. To challenge the strong, the weak will have to resort to such asymmetric tactics as terrorism.

Does all this spell doom for a security G20? Not necessarily, but it clearly imposes limits on what currently is achievable in that format. The G20 is best where the increasingly important non-military aspects of security are concerned, such as dealing with climate change or with global pandemics. Energy security is another likely candidate, if a more unwieldy one. This is precisely what the G20 should be doing, once the economic crisis starts to abate. Eventually the G20 could become a much more representative successor to the narrow and skewed G8. But for the more traditional things like nuclear non-proliferation, regional conflicts, religious and ethnic extremism, separatism and territorial disputes, the G20 formula will not work magic, and should not be advanced as a remedy. What can work are tailor-made coalitions inspired by sustainable joint leadership.

It is that joint leadership rather then any combination of individual players that holds the key to success in the security field. It is absolutely essential that such leadership should include the United States as America on its own would not do, yet nothing much can be achieved without its active engagement. It is crucial, however, that the U.S. should behave not only as by far the largest national power, but as the centrepiece and the principal stakeholder of global security. President Obama has been steering Washington’s foreign policy in the right direction, but that effort needs to be both increased amplified and sustained.

It is increasingly important that the emerging giants like China and India take more responsibility for international security at the same time as they take on more active global roles and wield more influence. Beijing needs to join with Washington and Moscow in managing strategic nuclear relations that have become multilateral. If ridding the world of nuclear weapons is to become a reality, there must be nothing less than a demilitarisation of relations among the major powers. To make sure that the world is not surprised by a nuclear war in the immediate future, India and Pakistan need to keep away from the brink, even as terrorists and extremists seek to undermine their fragile relationship and try to get hold of the nukes themselves.

Joint and coordinated efforts by the major players, already organised as “six-party talks”, will continue to be needed to address the nuclear problems of North Korea and Iran. The Middle East Quartet remains a useful formula to facilitate peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and the Minsk group “Troika” can assist in finding a solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But neither can replace, of course, the parties to the conflict themselves. Military involvements of the U.S. in Iraq and of the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan are paralleled by the diplomatic involvement of both countries’ neighbours and other major powers to foster stability in the region. But, it is domestic developments in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, none of which is a G20 member, that are key to international security.

Other important actors like Brazil, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Turkey could contribute massively to the global effort by displaying a new kind of leadership in their regions. To be “great” in the 21st century means to have the power to produce international public goods rather than the power to destroy one’s rivals or impose on one’s neighbours. Safe and secure neighbourhoods can pave the way to a safer and secure world community.

There is one formerly highly unstable neighbourhood that is now the world’s safest as well as its most prosperous; the European Union has emerged as a stable area of peace and comprehensive integration. One may wish it were the model for the rest of the world, but for the foreseeable future Europe is likely to be one of a kind. But it could help by being more of a leader. It is now richly represented at all levels: two out of the UN’s SC5 permanent members and of the “official” nuclear powers, while half of the G8 membership and a quarter of the G20 are from Europe. Sadly, this richness does not empower Europe, but rather undercuts its strength.