Much G20 attention last week centred on psychological interpretations of personal relations. The man who is dominating world news after first monopolising U.S. headlines from the moment he entered the 2016 presidential election, Donald J. Trump, was at the centre on two counts, at the least: his first meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whose alleged intervention in that very election is under investigation in the United States; and hostess, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkl, with whom Trump refused to shake hands when they first met in Washington earlier this year. Many reams of newspaper print will reflect on this for quite some time to come. But the baby that must not be drained out with the dirty bathwater is not this.
Other substantive issues remain at stake. North Korea's ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile) testing on the eve of the G20 Summit tops that list, since this forum was the right forum with the right leaders attending to take a firm stance: minus that, Kim Jong-un might sense enough acquiescence to proceed to his next step, whatever that might be. In particular, with Putin and China's Xi Jinping warning the rest of the world (to wit, the United States), against any retaliation, and South Korea's newly-elected president, Moon Jae-in, ventilating his desire to meet his North Korean counterpart to iron out differences, one baby might just go with the dirty bathwater: and with it, any U.S. input at a time of global leadership vacuum. Ironically, it is only with this ICBM testing that we first heard Trump admonishing North Korea after Jinping's Palm Beach visit, suggesting that rapport may be up in the air. Likewise with Putin: Trump's hitherto palsy-walsy references to a Russian leader he had not as yet met had to recognise the growing media concern with Russia, particularly piratical Putin. Might these signify the fading trumpets of a spent superpower, with cuffed hands at home and a voice ignored abroad?
There may be more substance behind that contention than from any G20 photographs or psychoanalysis. From data collected by Tristan Wyatt for the Wall Street Journal (July 06, 2017, entitled "Visualizing trade flows among G20 nations"), China is the top export destination of six of those 20 countries (19 actually, exempting China: Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and South Korea); the United States of only five (Canada, China, India, Japan, and Mexico). If we take China out of the U.S. list and add the growing Chinese trade with Canada, India, Japan, and Mexico, the future looks less well for the United States: it cannot match similar trade growth with those on its list that China can with the six countries on its own list.
Of the eight G20 members not on any of those lists, the United States does, indeed, carry a 7-1 advantage over China in terms of a relatively higher export-destination. The U.S. seven on this list includes Argentina, the 'rest' of the European Union not in the G20, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, while Russia accounts for China's sole entrant. Yet, some countries on the two U.S. lists may be close to defecting: Japan from the first one, Argentina from the second, since their exports to China are catching up with the U.S. figures. Canada and Mexico may be what Porfirio Diaz, the Mexican dictator, over a century ago once observed of Mexico's relationship with its northern neighbour: too far from God (for, in this case, any trade salvation), too close to the United States (to change the trade ball game).
Since the Hamburg G20 prelude was littered with some potentially tectonic trade moves, it is helpful to factor them into this discussion. Japan's Shinzo Abe signed a trade agreement with the European Council's President, Donald Tusk, and the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, that is vaunted to cover more people (over 600 million) than many other multilateral free-trade deals. That Japan would also modify its environmental laws to suit the high EU standards for auto emission was couched in a clause that might soon become pivotal to future trade agreements across the entire world: hinged upon the Paris COP21 Agreement on climate change that Trump unceremoniously rejected on his last Europe visit, this deal unnecessarily squeezed the United States into the global trade leadership corner. If we add to that how the U.S. automakers will also be squeezed out of Europe given the deal with Japan, this G20 visit could not have been for the United States what Trump tweeted it was: a success.
For one thing, the deal will feed into the economic resurrection Abe is desperately seeking for Japan. A sputtering European economy will also receive an unanticipated spark at a time when its comeback is being heralded. Adding China's equally unanticipated deal with Germany may be the icing of the trade cake in the still sputtering global economy. Jinping's single-minded and aggressive policy priority, enhanced from at least the World Economic Forum in Davos this January when he stole the show from a lacklustre U.S. presence, not only continues half way down 2017, but is also gobbling up more global space than the United States may be able to win back should it reverse its 'America first' gear.
Once bitten by Trump, the twice-shy Merkel is only accelerating that process and outcome, no longer implicitly, but explicitly. Since her failed handshake with Trump, she has met Putin and forged a deal or two: though merely of symbolic value to Germany and the European Union, those deals (especially over Ukraine) may transform 'Machiavellian' Putin into a magician, vaulting his bargaining position with his EU counterparts, over the United States in Syria, and, who knows, determining global electoral outcomes from Moscow?
Whether he had clandestine plans with the Trump team or not in the 2016 U.S. presidential election pales into insignificance against his political gains from Trump's upbeat visit to next-door Poland and amateurish grandstanding of a 'west versus Islam' slogan. True, Islamic extremism needs more collective global remedial efforts, but whenever the 'west' is bandied together, one clear loser has traditionally been Russia, the country that missed out on West Europe's Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment over several centuries, then, when it converted into the Soviet Union in the 20th Century, being outflanked, outwitted, and driven into insolvency. Acting like a tsar, Putin is not oblivious of these implications, certainly if his rallying of Iran, Syria, and Turkey together to dissolve the Islamic extremism in his vision, rather than Trump's, is any guide.
Future historians might trace any epitaph of U.S. world leadership to this G20 Summit: the trade cornerstone passing into the hands of the highest bidder, such as Jinping's China; and the security cornerstone to the loudest bidder, Putin's Russia. Whereas the European Union would be a fine bedfellow under both scenarios, Trump's inconsequential place in historical annals has just been reassured, just as China's and Russia's have been elevated. Recalibrating G20 membership rankings may have become an idea whose time has finally come.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.