G20: Challenges in Shaping an Interconnected World

G20 Leaders

Expertly ducking a potentially traumatic Trump (hand)shake by shooting past the US president to his wife Melania, Polish first lady Agata Kornhauser-Duda perhaps unwittingly set the tone for the annual G20 summit – showing Mr Trump his place in the new world order he helped, also perhaps unwittingly, usher in.

Not expecting a particularly warm welcome in Hamburg, the US president first visited friendly Poland to deliver a rousing speech, in front of a rent-a-crowd audience bussed in for the occasion, in which he managed to sing the praises of Western values without once mentioning democracy or the rule of law. All the same, the president did voice support for NATO Article 5 which commits member states to mutual defence. It was a welcome first and meant to undo the harm caused when during an earlier visit to Europe the US president explicitly failed to endorse the key article.

After assuring that the West will never be “broken”, Mr Trump on Friday met Russian president Vladimir Putin in an attempt to iron out differences over Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea. Not very helpful given the circumstances, the US president invited Russia to join “the community of responsible nations”, implying that the country is at present not quite living up to global expectations.

“Usually an unremarkable and rather ineffectual exercise in global politics, this year’s G20 summit deals with a world in flux – no longer merely a cliché – with fireworks on the agenda.”

Usually an unremarkable and rather ineffectual exercise in global politics, this year’s G20 summit deals with a world in flux – no longer merely a cliché – with fireworks on the agenda.

Germany, playing host to the world’s most powerful, has now reluctantly assumed moral leadership with Chancellor Merkel becoming the undisputed – and unlikely – leader of the free world. The position fell to her by default as more natural candidates from the Anglophone world seem to have traded political reason for bombast.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the world’s movers and shakers – all seek different outcomes from the Hamburg summit. Not one of them is likely to leave the two-day event feeling satisfied or vindicated.

President Trump’s wish list is refreshingly short: he needs help from China in keeping North Korea from going ballistic, and must establish a rapport of sorts with Mr Putin while maintaining a stand-offish attitude in order not to seem grateful for any covert assistance the Russian may have rendered during last year’s election campaign. In Hamburg, President Trump has only two dependable friends: Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and Brazil’s Michel Temer – not exactly models of rectitude.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, who brought two panda bears along, has just a single mission in Hamburg: evade the pesky Americans and keep their tiresome nagging about North Korea to a minimum. If lucky, President Jinping may convince Vladimir Putin to jointly tackle the recalcitrant Kim Jong-Un. Shunting the US out of a diplomatic solution for the North Korea issue would be a coup of the first magnitude and offer further proof to the suspicion/fear that the Americans are retreating from the world stage.

For Vladimir Putin the Hamburg summit offers a welcome photo-op. Pulling a serious and determined face whilst conferring with the US president during their one-on-one, allows the Russian president to reaffirm his status as one of the world’s great leaders. There is unlikely to be any progress on either Ukraine or Syria.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron – fresh, dynamic, chomping at the bit, and perhaps a tad naïve – went to Hamburg armed with a history book explaining the intricacies of the Concert of Europe and, more specifically, Russia’s central role in that precarious 19th century balance of alliances. Ignoring the Crimean War of 1853, a deplorable faux pas if anything, France wants to help bring Russia back into the fold (as spelled out by President Trump in Poland) by re-establishing the Elysée Palace as the go-between that pulls Russia westwards into the European orbit. In his endeavour to regain diplomatic primacy for his country, President Macron enjoys the blessing of Chancellor Merkel who is only too glad to pass the Moscow Dossier to Paris.

Sadly last and least, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s only job in Hamburg is to convince fellow G20 leaders that she, and her government, are not (yet) a spent force. Since it became abundantly clear that the British government holds no sway over the US administration, and is wholly unable to temper its America First urges, Mrs May struggles to maintain her country’s international posture. Descending from the aeroplane that brought her to Hamburg, Mrs May promptly threw away her only ace card by declaring that she would not discuss climate change during her private meeting with President Trump – thus giving up on the notion that the UK’s “special relationship” with the United States is able to produce any tangible results.

Instead, Prime Minister May opted to call for a crackdown on terrorist financing. The choice was deemed rather unfortunate as the Home Office was found to suppress a report on the funding of Islamist extremists in the UK by friendly countries. A Home Office spokesperson admitted that the report’s contents are “very sensitive” and will not be divulged.

Then again, the G20 is not necessarily the venue of choice to change the world for the better. Likened to a diplomatic jamboree, the annual get together was set up in 2008 to encourage global cooperation in the face of financial instability. The G20’s original remit was to avoid future financial crises from happening through concerted harmonised responses and policies.

However, as is often the case with global summits, the G20 is often distracted – if not hijacked – by late breaking events. As if on cue, North Korea blasted itself to the top of the global agenda, commanding the attention of not just the United States, but China and Russia as well.

This is where German leadership is called for – and comes in. Chancellor Merkel has repeatedly stated that she will insist on speaking about climate change and development issues, such as the need to address the plight of African nations in order to stem the flow of refugees heading for Europe. As global defender of liberal values, Mrs Merkel finds herself surrounded by swaggering populists as Trump, Putin, and Erdoğan. Not easily intimidated, on the eve of the summit Chancellor Merkel took a first swipe at President Trump, declaring that his administration apparently sees free trade and globalisation as a scenario that produces winners and losers as opposed to the win-win proposition it is meant to be.

Armed with the final draft of an ambitious EU-Japan free trade deal, potentially one of the largest of its kind, Mrs Merkel aims to show that liberalism is far from dead. She is particularly well-equipped to deal with the macho strongmen in Hamburg having outmanoeuvred all to reach – and keep – her present position as the leader of the world’s strongest economy. Of the world leaders gathered in Hamburg, the German Chancellor is the only one able to fill the hole where the US used to sit. However, she made a point of sitting down, so to say, with French president Macron in order to underline that Germany adheres to multilateralism and has no ambition whatsoever to rule alone.

Admonishing all present to play nice, the German chancellor can easily take the high road, insisting that participants adhere to the meeting’s original agenda Shaping an Interconnected World, including topics such as tackling tax avoidance and evasion, evaluating the opportunities offered by climate action and the digital revolution, and sharing the responsibility for refugees and migrants by partnering with Africa for investment, growth, and jobs.

What the heavyweight participants in Hamburg must now decide is if they are to be partners or adversaries.

By Wim Romeijn

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