KYOTO – Japan, the chair of this year’s Group of 20 summit held last week in Osaka, diminished its global leadership capacity by hosting a gathering dominated by political hot -potato centerpieces.
Let’s begin with U.S. President Donald Trump and his top senior advisers in tow, daughter Ivanka Trump and Jared “making the peace process in the Middle East great again” Kushner.
Ivanka, whose awkward appearance among world leaders launched hashtag #UnwantedIvanka, wrote in her 2017 book “Women Who Work” that her father “is renowned for his negotiating skills,” so she’s “been fortunate to learn from the very best.”
Her best negotiating skill — nepotism — finagled a seat at the table at international policy discussions with heads-of-state and photo bombs galore.
Another dominant political hot potato on display was next year’s chair, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, on whom Trump heaped praise as his personal friend to bookend his close personal friendship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Saudi crown prince and Trump stood side by side and front and center for the G20 leaders’ family photo, seemingly unbothered by any human rights chatter, including the bone-saw killing and dismemberment of government adviser-turned-journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul last October.
At the Nov. 30 G20 family photo in Buenos Aires, the Saudi crown prince stood silently in the back and off to the side without engaging any world leaders. This was two months after Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder at the hands of Saudi operatives. By June 29, the crown prince was the life of the party, along with Trump. What a difference seven months makes in schooling bin Salman in the Trump Doctrine: Don’t let facts or indictments get in the way of the showmanship. Pesky details must be ignored.
Outside of Ivanka Trump and her platitudes about women’s empowerment, the world’s majority represented by gender was invisible, sidelined or visibly discomforted. Outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May posed for an excruciatingly awkward handshake with Russian President Vladimir Putin that went viral. U.K.-Russia relations have deteriorated since the March 2018 Novichok poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury, and no trust building came out of the face-to-face.
Remember Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel? She was the star, along with U.S. President Barack Obama, at the Group of Seven Ise-Shima Summit in 2016, the erstwhile world’s most powerful woman and the European Union’s most influential leader. The 64-year-old arrived in Osaka to murmurs about her health since she was seen shaking uncontrollably on the eve of the summit. In the Osaka family photo, Merkel looks sidelined, a strange reversal of fortune between her and the Saudi crown prince, the one woman leader in the blue jacket on the far right among 12 men.
Putin’s presence was felt far and wide, mostly for his proclamation that Western liberalism is obsolete and has outlived its purpose. Trump’s election proved that point. Skripal poisonings in Salisbury? Too much fuss. LGBT+ persons? Their claims are excessive. Putin singled out Merkel’s 2015 open door refugee policy to admit more than 1 million refugees to Germany, mainly from war-torn Syria, describing it as a “cardinal mistake.” Liberals overprotect migrants, who “can kill, plunder and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants have to be protected.”
What should have made headlines but was lost in the show was European Council President Donald Tusk’s response to Putin: “What I find really obsolete is authoritarianism, personality cults and the rule of oligarchs,” he told reporters on Friday. Tusk added that whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that “freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete.” Pesky details.
By far the most sidelined principal at this year’s G20 was the world’s majority population. These 20 represent 85 percent of the world’s economic output and over 4 billion people. That should carry with it some heavy public accountability, but that’s where those pesky details slip in, like how to clean up the environment.
Just outside the elite meeting, Osaka the city was desolate, heavily fortified with security. Helicopters flew overhead. Police divers patrolled as a plastic bag wafted by in Osaka Bay. Locals were dealing with street and station shutdowns, school closings.
A friend from an Osaka suburb said that her daughter’s hot school lunch was not offered on Thursday due to the G20. The message was clear: Stay home, people. Nothing to see here. Keep it moving.
Nancy Snow, a professor and scholar of propaganda and public diplomacy, is the Pax Mundi Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.