It is rather poignant that the heads of 20 of the world’s leading countries are meeting in Germany this week, a few days after the funeral of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. A proud German and ardent European, under his watch the country was united at the end of the Cold War. He was one of the main driving forces behind the rapid expansion of the EU and the introduction of a single currency, the euro.
This is a far cry from the current disunited, nationalistic and visionless world leadership that gathered on Friday in Hamburg. More than a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, those who advocate addressing the most pressing global challenges via international cooperation, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, are a minority with a massive battle on their hands.
In contrast to the fortified and luxurious surroundings of the Messehallen Convention Center, mainly young protesters filled the streets of Hamburg. They expressed their anger with world leaders who fail to guarantee some of the most basic needs for human existence and are unable to prevent discord and conflict. Traditionally, these protesters are dismissed as anarchists whose only aim is to disrupt international summits of this kind without offering solutions. No doubt anarchists thrive on these occasions, but they are always small in number and marginal in influence among those who take to the streets.
Anyone who dismisses the brewing anger with these leaders does so at their own peril. Street protesters are relatively few, but ballot boxes in recent elections in the US, UK and France are not lying, and they scream of protest and profound civil malaise.
A quick glance at the summit’s agenda reveals the enormous challenges the world is facing, but also the bleak reality coming from two days of meetings in Hamburg that exposed the lack of consensus on how to deal with any of them.
From the outset, the aims established for discussion were put in a language that cannot and will not resonate with the daily hardships not only of the citizens of the G-20 countries, but especially with those who live in countries that are lagging behind in terms of human development. What they experience is an unforgiving capitalist system that serves first and foremost big businesses and multinational corporations.
Those who understand the need for radical change are either chained by the existing economic-political system or by their counterparts who thrive on disunity and discord at home and abroad.
There is a strong sentiment that the current system does not support ordinary people, neither in poor countries nor in more affluent ones. Consequently, there is decreasing interest in the bland words of the “resilience of the global financial system” or “global economic growth,” when for many millions their disposable income has suffered one blow after another since the start of the economic crisis in 2008.
It is no surprise that youths are either taking to the streets or protesting in how they vote. University graduates, for instance, find it increasingly hard to find decently paid employment in their fields. They leave years of laboring over their degrees with fewer career prospects than the generations before them.
On the other end of the scale, a recent Oxfam report provided further evidence against the illusion that economic hardships have hit everyone. According to the organization, the gap between rich and poor is growing consistently.
This is demonstrated by the staggering statistics that eight individuals own the same wealth as 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest people, and that there is more wealth accumulated among 1 percent of the world’s population than the remaining 99 percent.
This takes place in a world in which more than one in 10 people live under the poverty line, according to the World Bank. These kinds of statistics are bound to lead to social malaise with potentially grave consequences.
There is a dangerous discrepancy between a world agenda that requires close international cooperation, especially among the most powerful countries in the global system, and the reality of leaders in the mold of US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister Theresa May, who take a very narrow-minded, nationalistic, isolationist approach to world affairs.
Implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be achieved with the state of mind of “America First,” Brexit, Chinese protectionism or Russian aggressive ultra-nationalism.
Global summits rarely produce solutions, or at least a pathway toward them. More often than not, they leave a sense of impotence and incompetence. A leadership deficit evidently exists, but even those who understand the need for radical change are either chained by the existing economic-political system or by their counterparts who thrive on disunity and discord at home and abroad.
Tragically, this might work for some political leaders to stay in power, but not for the many millions who live in poverty, whose rights are compromised or who are caught in the midst of wars. They would gain very small comfort from what they have witnessed this weekend.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.