*The G20 Tango: What to Expect From the Buenos Aires Summit
Beyond the Official Agenda: High Politics Comes to the G20
Some observers have suggested that the G20 should create a parallel foreign ministers track. The rationale seems obvious:
- If the world’s most powerful leaders are going to meet, why not have them discuss difficult matters of high politics, as well as finance?
- (That, after all, had been the G7/G8 trajectory; it had augmented macroeconomic discussions with initiatives in areas of peacekeeping, nonproliferation, and counterterrorism).
- The G20 has declined this role—at least officially. Finance ministers, who dominate the forum, worry that straying too far from the G20’s raison d’etre will dilute the group’s impact.
- And non-member states remain wary of any suggestion that the G20 seeks to become a global directorate, assuming duties properly left to the UN Security Council.
Still, it is impossible to quarantine G20 leaders’ meetings from matters of “high politics.” Whenever the world’s most powerful men and women gather, they will invariably discuss what is on their mind, whatever the official agenda. This year, three topics promise to dominate the leaders’ conversations—and the resulting headlines.
- Time out for trade war. As usual, much of the action will occur in sidebar conversations, rather than the main event. The most important will be a planned bilateral dinner between Trump and Xi Jinping. Investors hope the leaders will dampen the mutually hurting trade war, but the two sides remain far apart, as evinced by the failure of the APEC summit to agree on a final communique.
- “China has not fundamentally altered its unfair, unreasonable, and market distorting practices,” U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer declares, while Vice President Mike Pence warns that the United States is prepared to more than double its tariffs. Beijing calls U.S charges “groundless” and “totally unacceptable” and remains intent on pursuing its “Made in China 2025” agenda. The net effect of these and other incidents, according to at least one observer, is a gaping wound in the U.S.-China relationship, for which the G20 offers the prospect of a Band-Aid fix at best. Given current mistrust, even a truce seems unlikely.
- The Ukraine crisis. Russia’s brazen seizure earlier this week of three Ukrainian naval ships in disputed waters off the coast of Crimea presents a test that G20 members cannot ignore. Moscow has been isolated within the UN Security Council, and subject to scathing criticism by outgoing U.S. envoy Nikki Haley. Whether the president of the United States will join in this condemnation remains to be seen.
- At last year’s G20 summit, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at length, in private (controversially, without a U.S. translator or note taker). They are scheduled to meet in Buenos Aires. Will Trump reprimand Putin publicly for Russian actions in the Kerch Strait? Or will he once again pull his punches with the Russian leader?
- A cloud over MBS. The most toxic guest in Buenos Aires will be Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), under widespread suspicion of having ordered the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, at the kingdom’s Istanbul embassy. Argentine prosecutors are reportedlyexploring arresting MBS under the principle of “universal jurisdiction.”
- That possibility appears remote, since the assassination while heinous is not a “crime against human rights.” Most leaders, beginning with Turkey’s Recep Tayipp Erdogan, will keep their distance from MBS (and presumably from the Saudi embassy). Less clear is whether Donald Trump, obsessedwith Saudi arms sales and low oil prices, will also give the crown prince the cold shoulder. Regardless, it should make for an awkward group photo op.
The G20 today resembles nothing so much as an unhappy family. And its summit, like many a Thanksgiving meal, risks being upended by politics.
The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: cfr.org