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Latest G20 Show Wins Mixed Reviews: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

04 Dec 2018

Doug Bandow

The “G” meetings are largely for show; it
doesn’t matter how large the number. Indeed, the bigger the
number the less serious the meeting is likely to be. The gatherings
are largely used for public relations, an opportunity for world
leaders to demonstrate their foreign policy bona fides to
voters—subjects in undemocratic states—back home. The
best definition of success at such a meeting is nothing bad
happening.

This appears to be the case with the latest G20 conclave. World
leaders affirmed their undying love for one another, committed to
advancing all things wonderful, and avoided any dramatic political
disasters. The official statement was anemic and the bilateral
meetings were formulaic, but the personal and policy embarrassments
were few.

The results might best be described as the good, the bad and the
ugly.

The official statement
was anemic and the bilateral meetings were formulaic, but the
personal and policy embarrassments were few

The “good” mostly derives from the Trump-Xi meeting.
First was the announcement of another Trump-Kim Jong-un summit,
likely next January or February, that was not technically an
outgrowth of the G20 since President Donald Trump made the
announcement on Air Force One on the way home. Still, the G20
meeting might have encouraged Trump’s decision, since Beijing
apparently encouraged him to move ahead with the summit. So give
the G20 credit.

Some have criticized Trump’s Korea policy as a failure.
However, Kim was never going to show up in Singapore with his
nuclear arsenal in hand, ready for disposal. The president’s
apparent belief that the Democratic People’s Republic of
Korea was going to surrender its leverage and trust in his
beneficence always was a fantasy. However, President Trump and Kim
are talking (which is a significant accomplishment) and the threat
of war has decreased dramatically. Washington and Pyongyang need to
concentrate on transforming their relationship, with the objective
of ultimately achieving denuclearization.

The second “good” outcome is the trade ceasefire
reached by Trump and Xi. This is grading on a curve, but any good
news, however faint, is, well, still good news.

The details aren’t so clear, but apparently the two sides
agreed not to impose more tariffs on each other’s
nations’ goods. Beijing agreed to spend lots of money on
American products, whether needed or not, and the two governments
are supposed to negotiate other U.S. complaints. This agreement to
talk probably could have been achieved months ago without the drama
upon which Trump thrives. However, what would be the fun in
that?

More importantly, demanding that the People’s Republic of
China buy $200 billion worth of stuff just to buy a bunch of stuff
is awful trade policy. It politicizes what should be private
commercial transactions. It also will make the PRC less likely to
make concessions in areas where concessions are most needed, such
as China’s assaults on intellectual property and
discriminatory treatment of American firms. Still, getting the two
economic giants to stop attacking each other is a plus.

Then there is the “bad.” The G20 statement advocated
reform of the World Trade Organization, but dropped its traditional
criticism of protectionism. The latter of these decisions, of
course, was done to satisfy President Trump, since supporting
genuine free trade was not something he could abide. The
organization could not even concoct compromise rhetoric. Instead,
it settled on President Trump’s terms which, when it comes to
trade, makes for an unequivocal “bad.”

Another “bad” was France, or more accurately, the
violent protests which enveloped Paris while President Emmanuel
Macron partied with the world’s elite in Buenos Aires.
Personally, Macron deserves this embarrassment. He is the worst
sort of Eurocrat, who believes that right thinkers in Brussels
should crush underfoot anyone elsewhere in Europe too stupid to
acclaim his beneficent vision for a united continental superstate
under the leadership of benighted people just like him.

However, mob violence in the heart of the capital of one of
Europe’s most important nations is bad news. If people can no
longer work together to resolve seemingly intractable issues, the
bottom starts to fall out of the political system. Although not
every political crisis is likely to end up like Weimar Germany, the
latter offers a sobering lesson of the dangers posed by political
extremism. Policies that flow out of street violence are almost
always bad at best, and disastrous at worst.

Also “bad” was the wreckage better known as Prime
Minister Theresa May’s government. Her meeting with Saudi
Arabia’s killer crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was
painful. She tried to put on a tough face for the folks back home,
but Riyadh released a picture with the two leaders smiling,
presumably as they discussed another British arms deal.

Worse, though, is the disaster known as the Brexit exit
legislation. The details are unimportant for the uninitiated.
However, May has produced a bill that offends British Brexiteers
and “remainers,” Irish republicans and unionists. For
May, the worst case scenario is a government defeat, her
replacement as Tory leader, and a new election elevating to power
the crazy Laborite Jeremy Corbin, who seems to long for the good
ole’ days when Vladimir Ilyich Lenin ran the Soviet Union. If
all of these happen, this rating will have to be elevated from
“bad” to “ugly.”

Another “bad” was President Trump’s
cancellation of the meeting with Vladimir Putin. Such an outing
would not likely have amounted to much, and nothing significant was
ever likely to come from their planned conversation. However,
President Trump is almost the only person in Washington who
isn’t dedicated to a new Cold War—or even a hot
one—with Russia. Neocons, liberal Democrats, traditional
hawks, and never-Trumpers appear equally determined to start a
fight.

Vladimir Putin is not a nice guy. That, however, is irrelevant.
Moscow today appears to be like pre-1914 Russia, a great power
interested in respect and security but with bounded ambitions.
Hysteria over a Russian blitzkrieg conquering Europe is an
embarrassing fantasy; America’s European allies enjoy ten
times the GDP and three times the population of Russia. The United
States should push for a practical settlement that limits further
Russian destabilization of Ukraine while acknowledging
reality—Crimea is not going back to Ukraine absent a
full-scale war possibly highlighted by a nuclear exchange. America
will have to offer concessions as well as make demands, such as
giving up on the dangerous, counterproductive idea of bringing Kiev
into NATO. However, diplomatic solutions seem unlikely if the
United States and Russia are not even talking.

Finally, there was the “ugly.” “Ugly”
certainly was the president’s experience. He didn’t
want to be in Buenos Aires, surrounded by world leaders who did not
acknowledge his genius. As he walked off the stage he was heard to
exclaim “Get me out of here” to an aide. He was
supposed to be posing for photos—and awkwardly returned a few
minutes later. But he found that his fellow leaders still were not
bedazzled by his leadership.

Far worse was Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi murderer and liar
also known as the crown prince. While he did not receive the usual
rapturous welcome for a Saudi royal with cash to spend (not only on
munitions, but also yachts and chateaus), his presence was a deep
embarrassment. MbS was neither a threat, like Putin, who had to be
dealt with, nor an ally, like most of the other G20 members, who
needed to be accommodated. Instead, Riyadh was a geopolitical
problem, the destabilizing troublemaker which it claimed Iran to
be, as well as a human rights affront, lacking the class and good
grace to preserve even a hint of deniability for its crimes to
protect the public sensitivities of its nominal friends.

The official statement was anemic and the bilateral meetings
were formulaic, but the personal and policy embarrassments were
few.

Still, the kingdom remained too wealthy to be treated
appropriately by democratic leaders, with contempt and disdain. The
compromise: a position for MbS in the group photo at the extreme
edge, which offered his betters an opportunity to crop him out for
official publications. It also made it easier for them to avoid
him, and even his gaze (a bit of symbolic justice), while
continuing to cash his country’s checks for weapons used to kill
Yemeni civilians.

Perhaps most importantly, his presence reminded everyone that
the gathering represented only an arbitrary ranking of economic
size, with neither the authority nor credibility to do anything
meaningful. If the G20 does have a purpose, it is to create a
gathering at which bilateral and smaller multilateral tête-à-têtes
are possible, even convenient.

In that sense the latest meeting probably succeeded like
previous ones have. Out of the G20 came some good, but also the
usual share of bad and ugly. Next year’s session will have some
different participants, but otherwise seems unlikely to be much
different.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of F oreign Follies:
America’s New Global Empire .

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal