During his brief tenure as president of the United States, the most compelling question for Donald Trump has been how he will reconcile the U.S. role as leader of the Western world with his “America First” agenda. There is no necessary contradiction between a desire to “Make America Great Again” and global leadership, but there have been fears that the U.S. would turn its back on the world in pursuit of narrowly defined nationalism. If last week’s Group of 20 meeting in Hamburg is any indication, the worst fears are justified. Trump has no interest in global leadership, and is prepared to endure international isolation as he doggedly follows his instincts and his agenda.
Disdain for multilateralism has been a core component of the Trump presidency; he believes that the U.S. can bring its might to bear more effectively and force outcomes more congenial to U.S. interests in bilateral settings. He believes “the global community” is a rhetorical trick to impose excessive and unfair burdens on his country.
Nowhere is that logic more evident than in his response to the Paris climate change accord, an agreement that Trump withdrew from with relish after his first trip to Europe as president earlier this year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, host of last week’s G-20 meeting, made shoring up of the climate agreement a priority at the conclave. The final G-20 statement noted the U.S. withdrawal but pointedly stated that other assembled leaders called the Paris deal “irreversible.” In a news conference after the meeting, Merkel conceded that “the negotiations on climate reflect (the) dissent (of the G-20) all against the United States.”
To be charitable, Trump appears to have united other G-20 countries in ways that might not have been possible given the disputes that marked the Paris deal negotiations. And, it was noted in the communique that the U.S. is not indifferent to climate concerns. In a jarring sentence, the statement added that the U.S. “affirms its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs.” Washington also pledged to “work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently,” a policy that seems to challenge the very premise of the Paris deal.
On trade, the U.S. was also an outlier. The G-20 summit was launched in response to the 2007-9 global financial crisis, and its most important contribution was the commitment of its members during those difficult times to refrain from unilateral acts that could begin the unraveling of an open global trade order. There has been some slippage, but the G-20 has never wavered in its commitment to fight protectionism. Until Trump took office.
In the runup to this summit, U.S. representatives objected to boilerplate language on free and open trade, and instead insisted on more emphasis on “fairness,” code for precisely the unilateral actions that could trigger responses. The boilerplate survived, but with a qualification: The communique stated that leaders agreed they would “fight protectionism including all unfair trade practices” while, in a bow to U.S. insistence, they also “recognize the role of legitimate trade defense instruments in this regard.” Again, Merkel fingered the U.S. as responsible, noting “that negotiations on trade were extraordinarily difficult is due to specific positions that the United States has taken.” The world now waits to see what the U.S. will do after its review of global steel trade and whether it will impose sanctions on countries that Washington considers to be unfair traders.
The G-20 communique did not mention North Korea, a stunning omission in light of the long-range missile test that occurred days before the summit and given reports that the topic dominated many bilateral meetings that justify the G-20 (and other big summits) process. A condemnation of Pyongyang’s behavior would have carried considerable weight, especially given the failure of the United Nations Security Council to do so. Equally telling, it was an issue that Trump could have supported — all his predecessors would have eagerly seized the opportunity. That failure confirms his disinterest in — or disdain for — such multilateral forums.
The meeting did, however, provide an opportunity for Trump, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in to meet trilaterally and confirm their cooperation to address the North Korean threat. Abe and Moon also held a bilateral sit-down at which they agreed to build “future-oriented” bilateral relations.
Other world leaders are trying to fill the gap created by Trump’s myopia. The Japan-European Union trade agreement announced before the summit is critically important, but it is also an affirmation of the commitment of Japan and the EU to the global trade order that has facilitated prosperity and security. As Abe declared during his visit to Sweden after the G-20 meeting, “It is … vital that we keep on raising high the flag of free trade.” The determination of G-20 leaders to safeguard the Paris accord is another positive sign, but there is no missing the impact of U.S. withdrawal. A G-19 is, despite the math, much smaller than a G-20.