The G20 – It’s Relevant But Different it Appears in the ‘Age of Trump’

Share Button

 I suspect we’ll hear, once the dust settles a little on the chaos of the G20 Hamburg Summit, a litany of allegations that the Hamburg Summit reveals the irrelevance of the G20 in the Age of Trump.  Au contraire my ‘ill-observant friends’.That is certainly not the conclusion one should draw from this most recent G20 Summit, even in the ‘Age of Trump’.

There is likely to be varying views of the progress arising from the Hamburg Summit.  Our colleague Jonathan Luckhurst at Rising Powers in Global Governance posted a blog titled, “Hamburg G20 Summit Reaffirms Decentralizing Global Authority”.

For Jonathan this Summit continued a trend he identified in the earlier G7 Summit in May at the Taormina G7 Summit. Evidently, Jonathan doesn’t so much see a growing G-Zero type world but rather an evolving decentralized power with greater roles from the developing world especially China but others like the BRICS as well.  And he certainly targets the withdrawal of US leadership with Trump’s America First policy – over trade and climate change:

Global ‘leadership’ has become a common theme in recent commentary on multilateralism and global governance. Critics argue the Trump Administration has reduced American influence, or ‘soft power’, in international relations. This has involved damaging policy disputes over climate change and trade, leaving the U.S. globally isolated on the former, while clashing with several G20 member states on the latter. This has included some prominent diplomatic disputes, especially with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government.  

Yet, it remains somewhat difficult to distinguish between a degree of decentralization that Luckhurst sees from growing fragmentation in the Order.  Many would suggest that the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord, especially following the previous administration’s  efforts at US leadership, is all about fragmentation in the global order – 19 against 1.  

But the attention to the question of leadership is a clue, it seems to me, on understanding the current state of the G20 and perhaps summitry more generally.  Though the G20 has become a rather minor affair in the media calendar – certainly for the US media – this was certainly not the way the US media approached the Hamburg Summit. Indeed, the NYT  in an article by World Leaders Move Forward on Climate Change, Without U.S.”, and other media outlets were ‘all over this Summit’.  Now most of it was targeted to the first encounter between US and Russian leaders. There was also attention, however, paid by the media to many other bilateral encounters.  Still, Trump dominated:

But Mr. Trump tends to suck all the media air out of a room, even in Germany, where he is deeply unpopular. This summit meeting was always going to be primarily about Mr. Trump and his first meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Serious attention was also given over to Chancellor Merkel’s efforts to ‘move the yardsticks’ on climate change and trade.  And there was attention given over to her failure to move Agenda 2030 or the Africa file.

For some time a number of G20 analysts – as good a name as I can come up with at the moment – have sought to understand the current dynamics and the operation of the G20.  It was evident in the near past that the G20 transformed from being a gathering of finance ministers and central bankers into a leadership organization – driven on the ‘horns’ of the global financial crisis. And while some analysts still ‘chaffed’ at the fact that this was not a universal club with frequent condemnations over its legitimacy, its lack of adequate representation, or its self selection, the fact is that these analysts gave rather positive marks to the way in which the G20 handled the global financial crisis. But as the immediate financial crisis receded, analysts urged that the correct framing of the G20 was an organization in transition. The argument arose that the G20 summit was morphing from a ‘crisis committee’ to a ‘steering committee’- designed to plot and execute  mid-range global policy, in such arenas as financial regulation, tax avoidance, economic growth and immigration. And in that imperfect transition, the criticism of this leadership organization rose that the G20 was increasingly unable to advance policy making at the global level.  Part of the problem was indeed lack of progress; but on the other hand collective policy efforts require policy reports and bureaucratic drafting that demands time in some cases years of official meetings to hammer out such policy initiatives.  Certainly not the stuff warranting media attention.  And many of my colleagues reflected on the lack of attention being paid the G20 Summits over the last few summits. Increasingly you heard the term ‘irrelevance’ raised in examining the G20 outcomes.

But in this examination of the contending approaches – crisis committee versus steering committee – attention to leadership was minimized.  And yet that is apparently the immediate trajectory for this forum.  And to a degree it fits the current leadership, particularly the US President. The full gatherings are evidently of little interest to him – as Hamburg showed – but the bilaterals are something else. And his trip to Poland as well as Germany was viewed positively by Trump himself according to the NYT:

But from the perspective of Mr. Trump’s team, the trip to Poland and Germany turned out to be a surprising early high point in his presidency, providing a brief but welcome respite from the forever wars in Washington. It left the president, who had been less than enthusiastic about coming, buoyant and feeling that there might still be a market for his hard-edge brand of conservative nationalism in supposedly inhospitable Europe after all.

It is evident that collective agreement may not be the principle product of the G20.  But there is serious discussion and issues are faced by leaders that otherwise would at best be dealt with by officials.  Now ministers meeting should not be slighted, but there is no substitute for leaders facing each other over very tough issues. Leaders are exposed an assessment of their capacity to lead, in in many cases lead collectively. Failure is quickly exposed, if the media chooses to examine the outcomes.

So leaders need to be leaders. And the G20 is the heart of global leadership. And it is probably the one setting that Trump will be willing to come back to in succeeding years. His America First strategy is not likely to be dispelled but at least it is exposed to the ‘light of day’.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Leave a Reply