Even by the standards of international summitry, the annual meeting of G20 leaders – scheduled for July 7 and 8 in the northern German port city of Hamburg – tends to be a bland, tightly-scripted affair.
Following two days of discussion and some last-minute bargaining, heads of state and government from developed and emerging economies issue a joint statement highlighting areas of consensus on issues ranging from financial regulation and taxation reform to economic development and international trade.
Leaders may or may not follow through on many of those commitments when they return home. But, at the G20, it’s often the perception of shared values that matters most.
Drama at the G20
Donald Trump has thrown a wrench into this diplomatic ritual.
Germany, which currently holds the rotating G20 presidency, selected “shaping an interconnected world” as the theme of the 2017 summit. But the meeting comes at a fraught moment for transatlantic relations. The future of the interconnected, liberal international order built by the United States and its allies and sustained for more than seven decades seems increasingly fragile.
The new US administration has abandoned the Paris climate accord, attacked free trade and defended economic protectionism, injecting a measure of high drama and uncertainty into the gathering. Might this year’s G20 summit be remembered as the moment when countries concluded that they must bypass America to reach agreement on pressing global issues?
The most controversial issues on an agenda that includes migration, refugee flows, sustainable development, public health and counter-terrorism are likely to be international trade and climate change.
Trump’s “America First” approach in these areas has put him on a collision course with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In late June, she told the German parliament, “Those who think that the problems of this world can be solved with isolationism or protectionism are terribly wrong.”
Trump has repeatedly denounced US trade agreements, saying they disadvantage American workers. During his first week in office, he announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the biggest regional trade agreement in history.
He has also threatened to scrap the North American Free Trade Agreement and to pull out of a free-trade accord with South Korea. He has complained about US trade deficits, including those with close allies such as Germany, and has raised the possibility of imposing tariffs on steel imports, a step many world leaders strongly reject.
The EU, in contrast, signed a trade agreement with Canada in October 2016 and on July 6 announced a trade deal with Japan.
Given the protectionism on display in the White House, these agreements are powerful symbols of Europe’s and its partners’ commitment to internationalism.
Trump, who once called climate change a “hoax”, is also out of step with other advanced economies on environmental policy. His decision to withdraw from the “draconian” 2015 Paris climate agreement was widely criticised. The US president has suggested that he may be willing to negotiate a new climate agreement, but Merkel insists that the Paris accord is “irreversible”.
European leaders would like the other 19 countries at the G20 summit to reaffirm their commitments to meeting the carbon-reduction goals set in the Paris agreement, thus highlighting America’s isolation on the issue. But with Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey, and Indonesia wavering over how strongly to embrace the climate deal, they may have to settle for majority support.
The Trump-Putin moment
Beyond the official agenda, a number of highly anticipated meetings between world leaders are planned on the sidelines of the summit.
For the first time since taking office in January, Donald Trump will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting comes at a complicated time for Trump: there are at least three investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election underway, as well as into possible collusion between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Trump and Putin are unlikely to dwell for long on such questions. Trump will probably seek to discuss the Syrian civil war, where Russia is deeply engaged, focusing on President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, the creation of safe zones and coordinating the fight with Islamic State.
Trump will also meet individually with leaders from China, South Korea and Japan to address the increasingly tense situation on the Korean peninsula.
Following North Korea’s announcement on July 4 that it had successfully test-fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile, Trump took a combative tone on China in an early-morning tweet on Wednesday, faulting Beijing for not doing more to restrain the reclusive regime in Pyongyang.
Trade between China and North Korea grew almost 40% in the first quarter. So much for China working with us – but we had to give it a try!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2017
US discussions with the leaders of South Korea and Japan will likely focus on missile defence, imposing further economic sanctions on Pyongyang and conducting further joint military exercises off the coast of North Korea.
Europe in the lead
With Trump in the Oval Office, the US is widely perceived as retreating not just from the global consensus on climate change and decades of trade policy but also from multilateralism and internationalism more generally.
While he affirmed the importance of NATO in a speech in Poland on July 6, Trump also questioned whether the West has the “will to survive” in an age of “radical Islamic terrorism.”
With American global leadership in doubt, China and the EU have tentatively staked out a bigger role on the international stage.
At this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered a strong defense of free trade. China, which is poised to exceed the carbon-reduction target it set for itself in Paris, also called US withdrawal from the climate agreement a “global setback”.
But China is not yet prepared to assume the mantle of global leadership alone. Nor does it fully subscribe to many of the principles of the current liberal international order, including democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
By default, then, the EU has become liberal internationalism’s main defender. At a June 29 meeting with EU leaders, European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed that “Europe is taking more responsibility at the international level in these turbulent times”.
On July 5, Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called the EU a “global point of reference” for everything from liberal democracy to the fight against poverty and terrorism.
— Andrej Matisak (@matisaksk) July 5, 2017
Since it was established in 2008, the G20 leaders’ summit has aimed to shore up its members’ commitment to multilateral cooperation and international institutions. Trump, though, has shown a preference for working outside these global structures and arrangements. His rise to power raises the question: can liberal internationalism survive without US leadership?