Last week’s G-20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, ended with a pledge from what’s being called the G-19—that is, the group of 20 major world economies minus the United States—reaffirming that the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is “irreversible.” The nickname may stick: The summit seemed to indicate that other world powers are determined to unite against the Trump administration’s erratic isolationism.
As my colleague Susan Matthews has argued, while the administration’s climate denialism is tragically misguided, if that denialism is going to be the U.S. policy, it actually may not be the worst outcome for the U.S. to pull out of the deal and let the other signatories get on with it, rather than spending years negotiating and watering down the agreement’s commitments to suit Trump’s whims.
Climate policy is not the only area where we seem to be entering a G-19 era. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the event’s host, said in a magazine interview prior to the summit that, “It is, for example, open whether we can and should in the future rely on the US investing so much as it has so far in the United Nations’ work, in Middle East policy, in European security policy or in peace missions in Africa.” She continued: “The US will probably not engage in Africa to the extent that would be necessary, particularly since they barely have oil interests any more in Africa and the Arab world.”
Three days later, this indifference was illustrated by Trump’s daughter Ivanka, an unpaid adviser with unclear responsibilities, taking his place during a meeting on Partnership With Africa, Migration and Health, a major breach of protocol that also underlines how seriously Trump takes those issues.
Even on the issues Trump does care about, the U.S. came out of the summit looking less like a leader than a cautionary tale and a catalyst for other countries to step up in its absence. Trump’s well-known antipathy to multilateral trade deals seems to have only deepened other powers’ support for them. Merkel has already reportedly rebuffed Trump’s attempts to enter trade talks with individual European countries, rather than the EU as a whole. And in Hamburg, the union stood united with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promising countermeasures against U.S. products if Trump followed through on threats to take action to protect the U.S. steel industry. It was probably easier for Juncker to get into a “battle mood,” as he called it, after the EU and Japan agreed on an outline free-trade agreement several days earlier, bolstering Europe’s continued viability as a trading bloc. Trump deserves partial credit for that deal: As the BBC notes, talks between the EU and Japan had stalled in 2012, but “[i]t was Donald Trump’s election, and the inward turn America is taking, that spurred the EU and Japan to overcome their differences. Both want to show domestic audiences they can deliver signature deals that promise new economic opportunities.” This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership has reignited flagging interest among some of the potential members of that deal for a free-trade agreement among the members of the Association of Southeast-Asian Nations—a deal that unlike TPP, would include China as the dominant partner.
Speaking of East Asia, the Trump administration spent much of the week leading up to the meeting banging the drum about the risk posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Yet, despite the fact that every government present shared Washington’s alarm about the recent North Korean missile test and that the leaders of nearly all the major players in the crisis were present in Hamburg—China, South Korea, Japan, Russia—there was no statement out of the G-20 committing to a new policy or even condemning Kim Jong-un’s aggression. In a video analysis that has gone viral since the meeting, the political editor of Australia’s ABC News points to the lack of a North Korea statement as damning evidence of weak U.S. leadership.
As for the meeting with Putin, Trump’s main takeaways were a cease-fire agreement in Syria, the future of which is murky at best, and a proposed joint cybersecurity unit that Trump quickly backed away from after the idea faced bipartisan ridicule in the United States. Trump’s seeming acceptance of Putin’s denials of tampering with the 2016 election will raise eyebrows not only in the United States, but also in Europe—where concerns about Russian interference are also growing. Trump’s indifference will likely only deepen international skepticism that the U.S. can be trusted to play a productive role in deterring Russia from further expansionism and meddling.
Trump’s election, coming on the heels of Brexit and amid the growing popularity of right-wing populism in Europe, seemed to herald a coming collapse of economic globalization and political multilateralism. It hasn’t quite happened that way. Anti-globalist insurgencies were held off by pro-EU centrists in elections in the Netherlands and France. While June’s election result in Britain probably won’t prevent Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May’s weakened stature does make a “soft Brexit” scenario more likely. And Britain’s partial departure from the EU could potentially make the ongoing integration of the rest of Europe easier.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party, of all things, is now eager to portray itself as the world standard-bearer of economic globalization, and Merkel’s warm embrace of Xi Jinping in Hamburg suggests that Europe is open to letting the Chinese take that role.
That’s not to say it’s all Kumbaya once you get outside America. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threat this week to pull out of the Paris Agreement suggests Trump’s action has emboldened others. Trump’s visit to Poland and his “Western civilization” speech in Warsaw could embolden that country’s right-leaning government as well as the leaders of countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic that have been at odds with the EU over refugee resettlement. And good feelings in Hamburg aside, there are valid reasons to be skeptical of China’s genuine commitment to either economic openness or environmental sustainability.
But there’s still enough evidence to suggest that globalization and multilateralism aren’t dead as international trends. Those principles are just proceeding without the country that used to be their staunchest defender. It’s far from clear what a G-19 world will look like, but last week in Hamburg, we saw it starting to form.