World leaders are meeting for the G20 summit in Hamburg today and Saturday. The sessions, which are likely to see key splits between the United States and other Western countries, could become the most remarkable G20 since the 2009 meeting in London during the storm of the international financial crisis.
Presidents and prime ministers will be in attendance from the US, China, Germany, India (which takes the G20 chair in 2018), Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, Brazil, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, South Korea, Argentina, Mexico, and the EU. Collectively, these powers account for some 90% of global GDP, 80% of world trade, and around 66% of global population.
It is not just the splits in the West that could make this year’s G20 memorable. There is also massive attention being paid by many international publics to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long awaited first meeting with US counterpart Donald Trump.
However, the biggest spectacle will be the divisions within the usually more unified Western powers. Key splits are likely to be witnessed between the United States and key EU states over issues such as international trade, migration and climate change.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a coded message to Trump last week that “whoever believes that the world’s problems can be solved by isolationism and protectionism is mistaken … One shouldn’t expect any easy conversations in Hamburg”. What this appears to underline is that she will not shirk controversy at the summit which will also see high profile protests outside the security perimeters.
Given the splits in the Western ranks, Merkel may well find one of her strongest allies on climate and trade issues could be Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi has positioned himself this year as a defender of economic globalisation, and also a big advocate, like Merkel, of the Paris global climate change deal.
In part, this is because the Chinese leader wants to defend the legacy of last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou which focused on the need for more innovative, sustainable global growth. Just prior to this event last September, Xi and former US president Barack Obama both formally ratified the Paris agreement, an important move given that the United States and China are together responsible for 40% of the world’s carbon emissions.
The ambitious German summit agenda has a key theme of the “networked world”. The broad agenda that sits under this includes financial regulation and, in particular, addressing “harmful tax competition” between countries.
Despite potential US opposition, Merkel also wants to re-affirm G20 commitment to free trade. One specific potential flashpoint with this agenda is the possibility that Trump will use the summit to demand specific action to reduce excess capacity and other perceived distortions in the steel market.
The Germans also want to bring Africa’s development centre stage at the summit. In particular, Merkel wants to secure support for a “Compact with Africa” to bring more private investment, jobs and new businesses to the continent. On a similar theme, there will also be discussion on how best to move forward with the UN’s implementation of the ‘2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, and the German hosts also want as many of the G20 as possible to re-commit to the Paris agreement.
This is an ambitious programme that is unlikely to be fully realised. Although the G20 is widely perceived since the 2008-09 financial crisis to have seized the mantle from the G7 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation and global economic governance, it has limited effectiveness in practice.
It is now a decade since the group was upgraded from a finance minister body to one where heads of state now meet too — a move which was greeted with considerable fanfare, including from then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy when he claimed that “the G20 foreshadows the planetary governance of the twenty first century”. Yet, the fact is that the forum has failed so far to realise the full scale of the ambition some thrust upon it, at the height of the international financial crisis. A key part of failure to deliver on previous high expectations is that the G20 meetings have no formal mechanisms to ensure enforcement of agreements by world leaders.
The fact that the agenda will include a focus on Africa, sustainable development, and a more equitable world order, will be noted with irony by some non-G20 countries. There remain concerns in some of these states about the composition of the G20 which was originally selected in the late 1990s by the US along with G7 colleagues. While states were nominally selected according to criteria such as population, GDP etcetera, criticism has been made of omissions such as Nigeria, sometimes called the “giant of Africa”, which has three times South Africa’s population.
Former Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has gone so far to call the G20 “one of the greatest setbacks since World War Two” inasmuch as it undermines the UN’s universal sense of multilateralism. Reflecting this, the UN General Assembly convened a rival UN Conference on the Global Economic Crisis in 2009 as an alternative forum.
Taken overall, while the G20 has not yet lived up to some of the initial expectations of it, it continues to be a forum prized by its members. This year’s forum could be especially memorable given the Trump-Putin meeting, plus the divisions that are likely to be on display within Western powers owing to Trump’s America First agenda.
Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics