The ‘Tweeting’ Elephant in the Room

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He wasn’t there.  But his presence seemed nowhere, and everywhere, nonetheless. Just a month ago the presidency of the G20 passed from China to Germany in Berlin.  And with the transfer Chancellor Angela Merkel identified her priorities for what is going to be a truncated German hosting of the G20.  The presidency will end with the a Leaders Summit in Hamburg on July 7th-8th. Summarizing Merkel’s priorities my colleague Stewart Patrick at CFR suggested the following as her particular interests: 

Chancellor Angela Merkel, this year’s host, has emerged as the world’s most important defender of globalization. She has chosen “shaping an interconnected world” as the theme of this year’s summit. Her priorities include fostering economic resilience, advancing sustainable development, empowering women, implementing the Paris climate agreement, and advancing peace and development in Africa.

To this I would add the impact of digitization.  Through the priorities there is repeated reference to the impact of digitization technology For instance:

The G20 is in agreement that the spread of digital technology is a key driving force of economic growth and social development. In order to make full use of the potential for innovation, growth and employment resulting from the spread of this technology, appropriate conditions must be created and possible obstacles removed, for example as regards expanding infrastructure, improving employment prospects and digital education, developing and applying norms and standards, and creating consumer confidence.

Now let’s turn to the kickoff I was fortunate enough to be in Berlin at the beginning of December for the start of the Think20 (T20) process.  For the German presidency, the German leadership sought to integrate more closely the T20 process with the G20 leaders process.  A bit more on that in a moment. As described by Patrick, globalization and its problems were on the Chancellor’s mind:

  As G20 partners, we must ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that everyone stands to benefit. How can we cooperate better in the future for the sake of our citizens? What fears and challenges are associated with globalisation, and what can we do to address these? How can we safeguard inclusiveness and ensure that the fruits of prosperity and growth are distributed fairly?


Even more critically, Chancellor Merkel underscored her commitment to collective action by all the G20 members.  As she declared:

The G20 must demonstrate that it stands together. We are mutually dependent on each other – and not only economically and in the area of financial markets. The G20 is an informal cooperative forum founded on shared values. It provides us with a high visibility framework, promotes our mutual exchange and reinforces our commitment to common principles. We can achieve more together than by acting alone. Strong international organisations are indispensable alongside this informal exchange. I want to work with the G20 to promote this.

So a better and more inclusive globalization, driven by collaborative G20 efforts form the foundation for the German efforts. The initiatives and priorities follow from these critical concepts.

Several things, however, were evident at the launches and worthy of comment. First, like a number of G20 Leaders gatherings before it, notably the recent Turkish summit, this Summit is impacted, notably politically, by a domestic election process.  At the Hamburg meeting for instance there will be no ministerial gathering of either trade or energy ministers. Why you ask? Well the minister for both is a member of the coalition but not of Merkel’s CDU party. Therefore, no ‘time in the sun’ for that minister. While perfectly understandable politically, the failure to meet is a hinderance to the bureaucratic process, which is a large element of the Leaders’ summits.

And then there are the political priorities. It makes sense that the Chancellor and Germany would place Africa as a priority.  As she suggested: “Building on regional and G20 initiatives, the frameworks for sustainable private sector investments and investments in infrastructure and renewable energies are to be strengthened through cooperation with interested African partner countries.” What isn’t clear is whether the focus on Africa is as strongly felt by other G20 countries. But there will be an effort to reach out to Africa.  At the same time the Africa initiative highlights the G20 effort to integrate the G20 and T20. The T20 is now slated to hold a session in South Africa in early February.  As described by the DIE, the German Development Institute (one of the T20 co-chairs) along with the Kiel Institute (another co-chair) and in collaboration with the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) will sponsor a gathering in Johannesburg to discuss options about what future cooperation between the G20 and Africa could and should look like.

While closer collaboration has real virtue – note that the G20 has worked relatively closely with the B20 – the effort to integrate more fully with the T20 efforts may be very difficult.  Certainly, there is little or no capacity to undertake more concerted research given the calendar.  But even Briefs, prepared by T20 researchers which are being encouraged for this year’s T20 process leave little time for preparation and review by all the various ‘powers that are required.

But the most  disquieting element of the kickoff was the split personality – if I might call it that – of the meetings.  Presentations and discussions seemed progress along with frequent mention made of the Paris Agreement on climate change or the UN SDGs 2030 agenda. Such discussion would flow along rather smoothly until an awkward silence would suddenly overtake the discussion.  You could hear the speaker suddenly reflect and you knew that he or she was cogitating on whether the discussion made any sense at all in the light of a new US Administration.  Would a new Trump Administration, spoken ‘sotto voce’, even be willing to consider the idea? Could the G20 move forward on the Paris Agreement  or on the SDG list approved at the UN. Would Administration officials even be there? And if they were there how would they react to a climate discussion or a discussion of UN sustainable development goals.

It is more than difficult to interpret what the Trump Administration is willing to discuss collaboratively.  How does one explain Trump foreign policy?  At one and the same time Trump foreign policy seems to be dramatically nationalist and, rhetorically at least, being willing to suggest unilateral American action.  On the other there is an isolationist, or at least anti-collective strain.  Multilateralism hardly appears an instrument of Trump foreign policy.  Could it mean that the key instruments of the Liberal Order, G20 included, would be abandoned by a Trump Administration.  We won’t have to wait long to see Trump Administration efforts.

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