A G20 summit of damage limitation rather than strategy

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A G20 summit of damage limitation rather than strategy

World leaders gather for a group photo at the start of the G20 Leader's Summit at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Nov. 30, 2018. (AP)

Logic dictates that a gathering of the most powerful and influential countries in the world should be a celebration of multilateralism and global cooperation, but this was hardly on show during last week’s G20 gathering in Buenos Aires. Instead, the dark clouds of unilateralism have been on display, gathering menacingly, with few rays of genuine enthusiasm for global collaboration to tackle the most pertinent challenges the world is facing. This made for a rather bland end-of-summit agreement that could mean anything and everything, and leaves it to the most powerful to pursue their own policies regardless of how this might affect the international community, especially the less privileged.

The idea of the G20 as a forum for deliberating global economic stability belongs to an optimistic (though not unrealistic) view of the world whereby development and progress is better done through collaboration rather than through each country fending for itself while the rich and mighty leave the less developed nations behind. But there is scant evidence of this approach in current international affairs; while instead ignoring international bodies and their decisions has become the norm. 

How symbolic of this new world it was that, on the eve of the G20 summit, Russia’s navy captured three Ukrainian naval vessels, with 23 crew members, that were sailing in international waters. This in turn prompted Washington to prepare one of its warships to sail into the Black Sea, and to cancel the meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin during the summit (though Trump, of course, had other very good reasons not to be seen in public with the Russian leader). 

This feels more like a world preparing for conflict than to peacefully resolving its differences, remembering also that other participants had other big issues on their mind, including Brexit for Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her EU interlocutors; the yellow vests rioting in Paris while President Emmanuel Macron hit a low of 20 percent approval; trade wars; and then, of course, the elephant in the room — i.e., Trump — with no one wanting to be trampled by one of his unpredictable outbursts of policy proposals. All this left hairline room for any serious in-depth negotiations on global affairs. The meeting was more about damage limitation than agreeing on long-term strategic and harmonized policies.

In this sense, the G20 was another missed opportunity to avert more international conflict among countries that represent two-thirds of the world’s population, 85 percent of global economic output, three-quarters of international trade and 80 percent of global investment. In other words, issues such as climate change, international trade, alleviating poverty, human rights and, more generally, attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, depend on these leaders working together. Alas, there is nothing more alien to some of those who attended the G20 and viewed affairs through the very narrow prism of what they believe — mostly with little real evidence — is good for their own countries.

Global trade was one of the areas where the meeting in Argentina failed to resolve deep divisions, especially with the US, and here it was decided to avoid confrontation in favor of procrastination. The US and China gave themselves three months to resolve their differences, and the vaguely phrased statement that concluded the summit suggested the need to reform the World Trade Organization (WTO), though with not a hint of how and when.

Global trade was one of the areas where the meeting in Argentina failed to resolve deep divisions, especially with the US, and here it was decided to avoid confrontation in favor of procrastination.

Yossi Mekelberg

The decision to suspend a further intensification of the trade war between China and the US, following a meeting between Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, seemed like a rare ray of hope. However, a few days later Trump couldn’t stop himself from tweeting, with typical defiance, that he was the “tariff man,” warning China that either a deal must be struck (probably on US terms) or tariffs will go up — “major tariffs” — on Chinese imports to the US. 

One can only hope that America’s arrest warrant on Meng Wanzhou, the Chinese tech company Huawei’s chief financial officer who was detained in Vancouver at the request of US authorities, will not exacerbate tensions between the two countries. What was supposed to be a trade war truce to enable productive negotiations aimed at avoiding tariff increases on $200bn of Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent has not got off to a very promising start. This has unsurprisingly led to nervousness in global financial markets, which reacted with sharp falls of more than 3 percent in the US, and to lesser though significant falls in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese expressed their desire for an agreement, but all indications are that they will not simply roll over. 

Similar avoidance tactics were employed by the G20 nations in their final communique when it came to the WTO. Here there is recognition that “international trade and investment are important engines of growth, productivity, innovation, job creation and development,” and that a multilateral trading system is central to maintaining sustainable growth. Nevertheless, in an act of capitulation to Washington, the document demands reforms to the way the WTO operates. The only way to interpret such pressure from the US is as an assault on multilateralism. 

It also took a moment of European unity to insist that the summit make a commitment to “improve a rules-based international order that is capable of effectively responding to a rapidly changing world.” What the world is experiencing at the moment is the opposite: An attempt to return to international actions based on power relations and not on mutual understandings and agreements.

It was not a G20 summit to be remembered for advancing international unity, let alone harmony. It has been noteworthy only for world leaders’ willingness to share the same space for a short while. For the time being, even this should be regarded as an achievement, as small as it is.

• 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. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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