Hamburg, the giant port city of Germany, hosted the twelfth G20 Summit on July 07-08, 2017. The theme of this year's G20 Summit was "Shaping the interconnected world". To convey that theme, the conference logo, the square knot, is very symbolic. It not only refers to the maritime heritage of the city holding the conference, but also to the fact that knot is very strong in holding things together. The G20 (19+1) is composed of 19 countries and the European Union (EU). The G20 was formed after the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 as a forum for international cooperation in financial and economic issues. Since the 2007-08 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the forum composed of heads of state and government of the G20 countries have mostly concentrated their attention on world economic growth, international trade and the regulation of international financial markets. Since its inception 20 years ago, it now accounts for 85 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) and two-thirds of the global population. The G20 (19+1) has no particular statute or mandate from any mandated global multilateral institutions but itself, yet it can have significant impact on global economic and political matters.
The Summit put on an agenda incorporating climate change, free trade and helping migrants and refugees, none of which particularly appealing to the US President Donald Trump. German Chancellor Angela Markel cautioned against protectionist policies pursued by the US administration and reiterated her view that there were few options but to make success of globalisation. She went further and even said that there could be no return to a pre-globalisation world. Despite the rise in nationalist and protectionist sentiment in the USA and elsewhere in the world, trade still account for about 58 per cent of global GDP down from a peak of 61 per cent before the 2007-08 GFC. One of the major highlights of the Summit was the first face-to-face meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Indeed, with President Trump in attendance one can surely expect much drama and much excitement at the Summit. Obviously, all eyes were on the Trump-Putin meeting. While not much going on the surface, Trump, nevertheless, created a climax by saying "an honour to meet you" to the Russian president, and Putin quickly reciprocated his sentiment by saying "I am delighted to be able to meet you personally, Mr President". Trump described his meeting with Putin as a "tremendous meeting" while Putin said he had established a working relationship with Trump. Despite such exchanges of pleasantries, there came the anti-climax. Trump insisted that Russia was a destabilising force and testing the resolve of Western powers. He further suggested Russia to "join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in the defence of civilisation itself''. Now it was revealed that Trump and Putin had also an undisclosed one-hour meeting during the Summit where only he, Putin and Putin's interpreter were present. That has given rise to various speculations.
Trump's call to Russia to behave was a replay of the issue he raised in Warsaw a few days before the Summit where he said "the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive". He even went on to say "Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?" He was clearly alluding to the Huntingtonian clash of civilisations - a reductionist civilisational war. The French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his concerns at authoritarian regimes emerging even in the Western world. This was clearly directed at Vladimir Putin at the Summit.
While leaders worked, gossiped and were being entertained, outside there were burnings and lootings (it can be described rather as a street-level display of their version of civilisation). Hamburg, the giant port city famous for its gales and flood coming from the North sea, now faced another kind of gale. As all kinds of dignitaries gathered for the Summit, crowds of about 55,000 protesters also gathered at the city on Saturday, the last day of the Summit to voice their grievances. Hamburg demonstrators clearly showed how deep the public anger had become. This simmering discontent is no longer an isolated phenomenon but has become rather systemic in most Western societies. But the response from the German government was to treat the demonstration as a law and order issue. The German Justice Minister Heike Maas told the tabloid Bild that he was going to set up an extremist data base to which every European country should have access. Maas also described violent protesters as "anti-social hard criminals". A senior German official even hinted at the possibility of closing down left-wing centres.
It was a fractious Summit. As other leaders signed up to a declaration committing that the Paris Climate Agreement is not negotiable following a stand-off between the USA and the rest of members which left Trump isolated. As 19 leaders broke with Donald Trump on the climate policy, the publication of the final communique resulted, in effect, in the emergence of G19 instead of G20. While the conference leaders found common ground on terrorism, they also split on numerous other issues - not a sign of much interconnectedness. The German Chancellor Angela Markel told the BBC, "I think it's clear that we could not reach consensus". The discord at the conference even boiled down to discussing a single issue what was described as "steel glut" lowering its prices thus causing job losses in the USA. That the Summit could even spend time on discussing a single traded product reflects the dysfunctionality that afflicted the Summit. An EU official very candidly expressed the view that President Trump committed to be less predictable and did not see predictability as a positive virtue in foreign policy.
One of the main reasons for G20 meeting of 2008 was to make a commitment to avoid protectionist response to the financial crisis. Since then upholding cause of free trade has become the mantra of all G20 conferences. But that commitment has been continually broken and now member countries of G20 have stacked up close to 6000 new trade restrictions. In the usual fashion G20 Summit 2017 again made commitment to fight protectionism and to work together towards a successful World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial conference to be held in Argentina this year. But language remains extremely vague, such as "all unfair trade practices" in effect could lead to interpretation resulting in new protectionism. In a world beset with global economic crisis, the European Union in deep economic and political crises and rising uncertainty and tensions in transatlantic relations, it is no wonder that the Summit ended up on its final day marked by violent demonstration outside and political discord inside.
The writer is an independent economic and political analyst.