The “G” meetings are largely for show; it doesn’t matter how large the number. Indeed, the bigger the number the less serious the meeting is likely to be. The gatherings are largely used for public relations, an opportunity for world leaders to demonstrate their foreign policy bona fides to voters—subjects in undemocratic states—back home. The best definition of success at such a meeting is nothing bad happening.
This appears to be the case with the latest G20 conclave. World leaders affirmed their undying love for one another, committed to advancing all things wonderful, and avoided any dramatic political disasters. The official statement was anemic and the bilateral meetings were formulaic, but the personal and policy embarrassments were few.
The results might best be described as the good, the bad and the ugly.
The “good” mostly derives from the Trump-Xi meeting. First was the announcement of another Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, likely next January or February, that was not technically an outgrowth of the G20 since President Donald Trump made the announcement on Air Force One on the way home. Still, the G20 meeting might have encouraged Trump’s decision, since Beijing apparently encouraged him to move ahead with the summit. So give the G20 credit.
Some have criticized Trump’s Korea policy as a failure. However, Kim was never going to show up in Singapore with his nuclear arsenal in hand, ready for disposal. The president’s apparent belief that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was going to surrender its leverage and trust in his beneficence always was a fantasy. However, President Trump and Kim are talking (which is a significant accomplishment) and the threat of war has decreased dramatically. Washington and Pyongyang need to concentrate on transforming their relationship, with the objective of ultimately achieving denuclearization.
The second “good” outcome is the trade ceasefire reached by Trump and Xi. This is grading on a curve, but any good news, however faint, is, well, still good news.
The details aren’t so clear, but apparently the two sides agreed not to impose more tariffs on each other’s nations’ goods. Beijing agreed to spend lots of money on American products, whether needed or not, and the two governments are supposed to negotiate other U.S. complaints. This agreement to talk probably could have been achieved months ago without the drama upon which Trump thrives. However, what would be the fun in that?
More importantly, demanding that the People’s Republic of China buy $200 billion worth of stuff just to buy a bunch of stuff is awful trade policy. It politicizes what should be private commercial transactions. It also will make the PRC less likely to make concessions in areas where concessions are most needed, such as China’s assaults on intellectual property and discriminatory treatment of American firms. Still, getting the two economic giants to stop attacking each other is a plus.
Then there is the “bad.” The G20 statement advocated reform of the World Trade Organization, but dropped its traditional criticism of protectionism. The latter of these decisions, of course, was done to satisfy President Trump, since supporting genuine free trade was not something he could abide. The organization could not even concoct compromise rhetoric. Instead, it settled on President Trump’s terms which, when it comes to trade, makes for an unequivocal “bad.”
Another “bad” was France, or more accurately, the violent protests which enveloped Paris while President Emmanuel Macron partied with the world’s elite in Buenos Aires. Personally, Macron deserves this embarrassment. He is the worst sort of Eurocrat, who believes that right thinkers in Brussels should crush underfoot anyone elsewhere in Europe too stupid to acclaim his beneficent vision for a united continental superstate under the leadership of benighted people just like him.
However, mob violence in the heart of the capital of one of Europe’s most important nations is bad news. If people can no longer work together to resolve seemingly intractable issues, the bottom starts to fall out of the political system. Although not every political crisis is likely to end up like Weimar Germany, the latter offers a sobering lesson of the dangers posed by political extremism. Policies that flow out of street violence are almost always bad at best, and disastrous at worst.
Also “bad” was the wreckage better known as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government. Her meeting with Saudi Arabia’s killer crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was painful. She tried to put on a tough face for the folks back home, but Riyadh released a picture with the two leaders smiling, presumably as they discussed another British arms deal.
Worse, though, is the disaster known as the Brexit exit legislation. The details are unimportant for the uninitiated. However, May has produced a bill that offends British Brexiteers and “remainers,” Irish republicans and unionists. For May, the worst case scenario is a government defeat, her replacement as Tory leader, and a new election elevating to power the crazy Laborite Jeremy Corbin, who seems to long for the good ole’ days when Vladimir Ilyich Lenin ran the Soviet Union. If all of these happen, this rating will have to be elevated from “bad” to “ugly.”
Another “bad” was President Trump’s cancellation of the meeting with Vladimir Putin. Such an outing would not likely have amounted to much, and nothing significant was ever likely to come from their planned conversation. However, President Trump is almost the only person in Washington who isn’t dedicated to a new Cold War—or even a hot one—with Russia. Neocons, liberal Democrats, traditional hawks, and never-Trumpers appear equally determined to start a fight.
Vladimir Putin is not a nice guy. That, however, is irrelevant. Moscow today appears to be like pre-1914 Russia, a great power interested in respect and security but with bounded ambitions. Hysteria over a Russian blitzkrieg conquering Europe is an embarrassing fantasy; America’s European allies enjoy ten times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. The United States should push for a practical settlement that limits further Russian destabilization of Ukraine while acknowledging reality—Crimea is not going back to Ukraine absent a full-scale war possibly highlighted by a nuclear exchange. America will have to offer concessions as well as make demands, such as giving up on the dangerous, counterproductive idea of bringing Kiev into NATO. However, diplomatic solutions seem unlikely if the United States and Russia are not even talking.
Finally, there was the “ugly.” “Ugly” certainly was the president’s experience. He didn’t want to be in Buenos Aires, surrounded by world leaders who did not acknowledge his genius. As he walked off the stage he was heard to exclaim “Get me out of here” to an aide. He was supposed to be posing for photos—and awkwardly returned a few minutes later. But he found that his fellow leaders still were not bedazzled by his leadership.
Far worse was Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi murderer and liar also known as the crown prince. While he did not receive the usual rapturous welcome for a Saudi royal with cash to spend (not only on munitions, but also yachts and chateaus), his presence was a deep embarrassment. MbS was neither a threat, like Putin, who had to be dealt with, nor an ally, like most of the other G20 members, who needed to be accommodated. Instead, Riyadh was a geopolitical problem, the destabilizing troublemaker which it claimed Iran to be, as well as a human rights affront, lacking the class and good grace to preserve even a hint of deniability for its crimes to protect the public sensitivities of its nominal friends.
Still, the kingdom remained too wealthy to be treated appropriately by democratic leaders, with contempt and disdain. The compromise: a position for MbS in the group photo at the extreme edge, which offered his betters an opportunity to crop him out for official publications. It also made it easier for them to avoid him, and even his gaze (a bit of symbolic justice), while continuing to cash his country’s checks for weapons used to kill Yemeni civilians.
Perhaps most importantly, his presence reminded everyone that the gathering represented only an arbitrary ranking of economic size, with neither the authority nor credibility to do anything meaningful. If the G20 does have a purpose, it is to create a gathering at which bilateral and smaller multilateral tête-à-têtes are possible, even convenient.
In that sense the latest meeting probably succeeded like previous ones have. Out of the G20 came some good, but also the usual share of bad and ugly. Next year’s session will have some different participants, but otherwise seems unlikely to be much different.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.