Editorials

At the Group of 20, it's show over substance

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is nothing if not an optimist. He had hoped that last week’s Osaka Group of 20 leaders summit would tackle difficult global problems and reinvigorate multilateral diplomacy in the process. It was going to be a tough sell: There are yawning differences in views among G20 members and recent events have magnified those divisions. Ultimately, Abe’s efforts were undone by an unsolvable dilemma: producing a consensus meant leaching the final declaration of any substance.

While the G20 process is a long and plodding series of conferences that culminates in the leaders’ meeting, the days before the Osaka sit-down and the meeting itself were laden with drama. There was the much-anticipated dinner between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, at which they would hopefully resolve their trade war. There was a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which the U.S. president made light of the charges of Russian interference in U.S. elections. British Prime Minister Theresa May had a frosty encounter with Putin, during which he dismissed the murder of a former Russian spy on British soil as “not worth serious interstate relations.” Putin’s remarks about “the end of liberalism” in an interview before the meeting also prompted tough-minded rejoinders from participants.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman was present and center stage, seeming absolved of any involvement in last year’s brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Then there were Trump’s comments that Japan was freeloading on the Japan-U.S. security alliance and his casual invitation to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to join him for a handshake at the Demilitarized Zone during his Sunday visit.

Those events demanded media attention and provided alternative story lines to the one the Japanese government hoped would dominate coverage: Abe’s diplomatic success. A close look at the final communique, however, suggests that a lack of scrutiny might not be a bad thing. The G20 Osaka leaders declaration is, despite its length — 13 pages — a remarkably light document.

Its forecast is not assuring. “Global growth appears to be stabilizing and is generally projected to pick up moderately” although it warns, “risks remain tilted to the downside.” Despite pledges to work together to address major global economic challenges, the document makes no mention of protectionism. Instead, it commits to “free, fair and non-discriminatory” trade and to “keep our markets open.” Abe defended this statement by noting that “We need to go back to the original point so that we can remember what it was we were initially seeking … agreeing on these important principles.” Curiously missing from those principles is any mention of a “rules-based order,” a cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy.

Abe can take pride in securing G20 “support for the necessary reform of the World Trade Organization” — although a shared definition of “necessary” is likely to be elusive if not impossible — and endorsement of Japan’s call for “quality infrastructure,” which is a counterpoint to the debt-trap diplomacy that China has been accused of promoting. While the communique did mention Abe’s signature call for “Data Free Flow with Trust,” particulars about its contents are lacking.

Abe managed to get agreement on climate change — French President Emmanuel Macron had called a strong reference to the Paris Accord on reducing greenhouse gas emissions his “red line” — but the final product is another “19+1” kludge that allows the U.S. to opt out of the group’s position. An entire paragraph sets out and applauds Trump’s antediluvian views on this pressing problem. The world cannot let Washington’s approach hold it back. The statement did acknowledge that marine plastic waste is a serious concern, and the G20 promised to make “concrete” efforts to tackle the problem.

Real business was accomplished at the meeting, however. Trump and Xi declared a truce in their trade war, although what else they agreed to is unclear. Negotiations on a trade deal will now resume. The European Union and Latin American bloc Mercosur agreed after 20 years of negotiations to create the world’s largest free trade zone. Russia and Saudi Arabia also agreed to extend their oil agreement — which cuts production by 1.2 million barrels per day — for six to nine months.

If the G20 was not the unquestioned success that Abe had hoped, it cannot be called a failure either. The results of last week’s meeting were probably the most that can be expected from a group as disparate as this that is dealing with profound, structural problems that demand big solutions. The prime minister’s handling of this event will burnish his credentials in the election to be held later this month and that may ultimately prove to be the most important outcome for him.