Never before has such a weak final statement taken so much effort. The G-20 is increasingly dominated by nationalists, yet the meeting is indispensable.
Never before have preparations for the draft of a Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations communiqué taken as long as it did this year. Of course, the closing statements have never been free of conflict; large states like the U.S. or China have always been wary of binding statements. However, this year was one of particularly stubborn haggling, especially with regard to world trade and climate protection.
Then there is Donald Trump, who does not really believe in climate change, and does not want to include any link between global warming and greenhouse gas emissions from the statement. And keeping with the spirit of his “America First” policy, he wants to avoid the usual commitment to regulated world trade. The Turks are critical of documents that mention the Paris Climate Agreement. China, on the other hand, wants to prevent language intended to strengthen the fight against their overcapacity in the steel industry.
That is why the EU representatives – the EU Commission is also part of the G-20 – already see it as a success that the states and their leaders are committed to reforming the World Trade Organization. However, this reform has been on the agenda for a long time, and this renewed enthusiasm is just a diplomatic trick. Equally banal, it appears particularly pointedly in the closing statement that one must work multilaterally, becoming the solution to the problem in a large circle.
And yet, there are good reasons why many diplomats see joint declarations as a sign of hope. Never before have so many nationalists, populists and other problematic cases been represented at a G-20 summit. This is not a good prerequisite for a format that is supposed to get the representatives of a large part of the world’s population to cooperate. And they must. The official agenda of the hosting Argentines is determined by the urgency of international cooperation – for the global food supply and labor, the climate crisis and world trade.
There are highly current projects that will upset geopolitical stability if no one is careful. We need globally valid agreements, which demand compromise. But these are hardly possible today with politicians like Trump, Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin. And these three are hardly the only problematic cases. Even the Italians, with their strange right-left populism, are not particularly flexible, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is, in any case, in charge of a deeply repressive state, is deeply involved in the state murder of the regime critic Jamal Khashoggi. Or take the future president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, also a right-wing extremist.
The Communiqués Have Become Less Important
They are all unified in the sense that they are economic nationalists, and in the nature of nationalists, it is now time to raise their own nation above others. Compromises are hardly possible. Climate catastrophe? Global hunger? The future of work? You do not get the appropriate sense of urgency in the current closing statement. Seen this way, the G-20 format is very ill, but it is not yet dead. Nationalists currently account for nearly half of the G-20 governments, and face more globalized countries like Germany, France, Japan and Australia. Given the high number of nationalists, one cannot afford to give so much attention to the communiqués.
More importantly at the moment, the G-20 is being used for talks and observation, because, with the exception of the United Nations General Assemblies, never before have so many important representatives of state come together. At this summit in particular, there was plenty of daily updated baggage, and the U.S.-China trade disputes, the Ukraine crisis and the Khashoggi murder were front and center. The G-20 Summit was decided before it even began.
Exactly there is where the opportunities also lie: Trump used the summit to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi for the first time since the beginning of their trade dispute. The relationship between these two is likely to decisively co-determine the future of global growth.
Talk, Explore, Observe
Or consider Chancellor Angela Merkel. She spoke with Russian President Putin about the highly dangerous Crimea crisis, as well as French President Emmanuel Macron, who helped; he had demanded a “phase of de-escalation” already by Friday. Merkel has also talked with Trump and Xi mainly about how Germany as an export dependent country can navigate the trade conflict between China and the United States.
Talking, exploring political options, preventing misunderstanding. Even simple (or dazzling) gestures can be enlightening, like the friendly understanding between China’s President Xi and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Or the high-five between the crown prince and Putin, who share the role of G-20 pariah this year.
So the G-20 passes the winter as the season of nationalists. And the hope remains that more politicians will come to power again with whom significant multilateral agreements are possible. Politicians who represent their nation but are nevertheless able to understand global crises, to respect the wishes of others and to make some sacrifices. In dictatorships such as the Communist Party-controlled China, we might have to wait a long time for such a policy change. But there is still political movement in the liberal G-20. People like Trump, Bolsonaro or Matteo Salvini may come to power, but they will eventually be voted out again. It’s possible that the U.S., for example, might be a partner again in 2020.