President Donald Trump’s second foreign trip, to attend a G-20 summit meeting, demonstrated how far and how fast U.S. global leadership and influence have fallen. This observation is warranted despite the usual tendency in the media to overplay summit meetings and the atmospherics surrounding them, in contrast to inattention given to ordinary but important diplomacy conducted at other levels. Then again, with a depopulated and demoralized State Department, much of the important business of the Trump administration has to be conducted at the summit level. The concentration of decision-making in that administration into a narrow circle of confidantes was underscored by how when Trump absented himself from one of the G-20 plenary sessions, his place was taken not by the secretary of state, as summit protocol would dictate, but instead by his daughter Ivanka.
The clearest indication at the G-20 of how isolated the United States has become was on the paramount issue of climate change. The summit communique makes clear the United States was all alone, with the only nod to the Trump administration’s preferences being a word about burning fossil fuels more cleanly. It is not unprecedented for the United States to be alone among major powers in multilateral bodies; think of the annual resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba. But the importance of the climate change issue, with the future of the planet at stake, makes the lonely and odd U.S. posture more significant.
Moreover, the U.S. loneliness on this issue highlighted a larger dearth of U.S. influence. Prior to the Hamburg meeting, some observers speculated that Trump would be able to cadge support on climate change from some other regimes with postures similar to his on other issues. The prime candidate to be such a supporter was Saudi Arabia, which not only relies on fossil fuels for its wealth but was the beneficiary of unqualified love from Trump on his first foreign trip. Any backing from the Saudis at the summit, however, was barely visible.
The sidebar bilateral meeting in Hamburg that got the most attention was Trump’s session with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The main takeaway from that meeting is that on the most salient and sensitive issue in U.S.-Russian relations—the Russian interference in last year’s U.S. election—the meeting came out just as Putin would have liked and with almost nothing positive to show on the U.S. side. Evidently Trump felt obligated to raise the issue at the beginning of the meeting; he hardly could have avoided the topic altogether. Putin denied any involvement in such interference. Trump apparently then responded with something equivalent to, “okay, so, let’s move on to the next topic.” After the meeting, first Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and then Putin himself portrayed the conversation as including an acceptance by Trump of Putin’s denial. There was little effective pushback from the U.S. side against this portrayal.
There also was no indication of effective U.S. use of leverage in discussing the election interference issue in conjunction with other problems of common concern such as Syria. Of course, Trump gave up much of his leverage in advance by again publicly doubting the findings of U.S. government agencies about the election interference. This also was a breach of protocol, if not of summit diplomacy then of the U.S. tradition of stopping domestic political differences at the water’s edge. Trump engaged in other such breaches during the summit, including a bizarre and inaccurate tweet about John Podesta and computer servers.
The trip was another demonstration of Trump being unfit for diplomacy by temperament as well as by experience and knowledge—although at least on this trip there were no more episodes of physically shoving a prime minister out of the way as cameras were being set up for a group shot. For Trump, official trips are not an opportunity to use valuable presidential time to move U.S. interests forward but instead are an expanded forum for his narcissism to play out. This is the most plausible explanation for the choice of Poland as the one other stop on this trip besides the summit at Hamburg. The government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s right-wing, xenophobic, and anti-media Law and Justice Party could be counted on to provide a comfortable and applause-filled venue for what amounted to another Trump campaign rally, with its usual xenophobic and anti-media undercurrents. If Trump’s itinerary instead had been planned to use valuable presidential time to advance U.S. interests, a more logical pre-summit stop would have been, say, a visit to newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron.
To be fair, the limitations on display at the G-20 meeting were not all a matter of Donald Trump. In searching for offsetting benefits along the path of destruction that is the Trump presidency, one possible benefit is how his excesses have made clearer than ever the limitations on U.S. power in a multipolar world. Although U.S. leadership and influence have indeed been falling fast, it is not only in the last few months that the ability of the United States to get its way has not been nearly as great as some common versions of American exceptionalism would hold. Most previous presidents, by showing decent respect to the opinions of mankind and by avoiding inexcusably backward postures such as Trump’s on climate change, have nevertheless avoided the kind of isolation in display at Hamburg. Trump is demonstrating mostly his own limitations, but he also is demonstrating how even the power of the United States is not sufficient to overcome understandable resistance to stupid and narrowly conceived policies.
Image: Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC. Flickr / Gage Skidmore