Tuesday, September 6, 2016

What Happened at the G-20? Not Much - Obama’s “legacy” summit had very few concrete results

One photographer assigned to photograph the G-20 summit captured a telling moment on the stage in Hangzhou: Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan engaged in an animated conversation, while a pensive-looking German chancellor Angela Merkel (perhaps still processing the news of her party’s catastrophic electoral defeat in her home state of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania) looks into the distance and President Barack Obama, standing on the other side of the group of leaders, displayed what appeared to be intense curiosity at what was being discussed between Putin and Erdoğan. (President Xi Jinping, as the host, radiated an expression of apparent satisfaction.)

The optics were not particularly positive for the president’s last G-20 summit—in marked contrast to the 2009 conclave in Pittsburgh. There, the U.S. president was at the center of attention, projecting an image of American global leadership in marshaling a response to the global economic crisis while laying the foundations of a more determined international effort to press Iran on its nuclear program that ultimately resulted in new sanctions, which ended up bringing Tehran back to the negotiating table. The Pittsburgh summit suggested that only the U.S. president could make the G-20 format work—bridging the gaps between the industrialized West and the rising East and south.

This time, Barack Obama’s “legacy” summit got off to a bad start when, after being forced to disembark from a different door of Air Force One than the traditional one used for photo ops, his National Security Advisor got into a shouting match with Chinese officials. Instead of traveling to China with two major free trade pacts well in hand, designed to make America the indispensable keystone between the Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific blocs, his signature item for the rebalance to Asia—the Trans-Pacific Partnership—lingers on political life support, while the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is all but dead in the water. A landmark climate change accord was promulgated only on the shaky basis of executive authority as opposed to Senate ratification, opening up the possibility that a future U.S. president will not honor its commitments.

On a variety of longer-term issues, the preference of other leaders at Hangzhou was to adopt a wait-and-see approach, beginning with who will occupy the Oval Office come January 2017. There was a palpable sense that any commitment that Obama might make at this meeting would have a clear expiration date—and that either of his successors would not feel bound by any promise he might proffer.

There was hope that the G-20 might prove to be the backdrop for a joint Russian-American effort on ending the fighting in Syria. Indeed, at one point it appeared that two podiums were being set up for an announcement by Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. But the sideline meeting between Putin and Obama was unable to resolve remaining differences over the mechanics of a possible new cease-fire, or the continuing gaps in trust between the two sides.

This is because Moscow sees no reason to “rescue” American policy in Syria, which suffered a major setback once Turkey shifted gears to viewing the Kurds, rather than the Bashar al-Assad regime, as its primary national-security threat. The Kurds, who have been America’s most stalwart local allies in the fight against Islamic State, now find themselves targeted by Turkey and other Sunni Arab rebel groups (some of them, in turn, also supported by the United States). Nor is Moscow particularly bothered by the optics of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Aleppo, seeing it as a consequence of the continued intransigence of opposition groups not to negotiate a settlement with the Assad government. Indeed, given the momentum of the Syrian government offensive, a cease-fire to permit the delivery of aid at this time would affect the timeline under which Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime are operating, changing the facts on the ground as much as possible, prior to the arrival of a new U.S. administration that might be more inclined to take more decisive action, so as to raise the costs for any future intervention. (In a way, it follows the playbook set by the Obama administration with regard to Darfur: highly critical of the Bush administration’s inaction during the campaign—including calls for U.S. military intervention—but accepting the reality of Sudanese control in Darfur once in office by arguing that it was now too late to do anything.)

Indeed, it is difficult to see any concrete results from this summit at all. The idea that the G-20 represents a mechanism for the key leaders of the world to caucus and find solutions to pressing global issues seems long gone. While this conclave of global chief executives was gathered in Hangzhou, North Korea went ahead with new ballistic missile tests; talks on Ukraine between Putin and Merkel, and Putin and French president François Hollande, went nowhere; encounters between Obama and Xi, and Xi and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, did not bring pressing disputes in Asia any closer to resolution. The Australian has opined that the G-20 had “nothing to show from world leaders.” And while Obama’s last G-20 was not quite the legacy item he might have hoped for, no one emerged to fill in the vacuum. Hangzhou may be the strongest validation of Ian Bremmer’s prediction that we are moving towards a “G-Zero” world.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the incoming Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a nonresidential senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute


  1. The G20 process is stalling. It needs a big kick in the butt. Host countries should deliver it at future G20 meetings.
    What's the proof that the G20 is stalling? Simple: the global economy is stalling. Since the first G20 summit, held in 2008 with the explicit mission to "work together to restore global growth," it has failed in its core mission. Indeed, the prospects for global economic growth have never looked so gloomy - Larry Summers recently suggested that we are stuck in "secular stagnation."
    Why is the G20 failing? The conventional answer is that the G20 is divided – the fiscal deficit countries (like the US) want the fiscal surplus countries (like China and Germany) to do more to stimulate domestic demand. In short, differences of opinions on the correct economic responses are causing the G20 process to stall.
    But such conventional answers are dead wrong. The G20 is not stalling for economic reasons. It is stalling because geopolitical considerations are interfering with rational economic responses. The zero-sum calculations that plague geopolitical thinking are preventing rational economic cooperation among G20 nations.
    A good example is provided by China's proposal to set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The G20 countries agree that stimulating greater investment in infrastructure would boost global economic growth. As the leaders' communiqué that followed the Brisbane G20 summit in November 2014 explicitly said, "Tackling global investment and infrastructure shortfalls is crucial to lifting growth, job creation and productivity." Yet, when China launched the AIIB, the US campaigned fiercely against it, and an anonymous US Treasury official expressed US feelings well when he said in response to the British decision to join the AIIB, "We are wary about a trend toward constant accommodation of China, which is not the best way to engage a rising power."

  2. The honesty of this official is commendable. His statement brings out well the zero-sum attitudes of geopolitical "strategic thinkers." The real tragedy here (and it's a tragedy that cripples the G20) is that these so-called "strategic" thinkers can't think strategically and can't see the big strategic picture of how our world has evolved. Most of the people advising the G20 on "strategic" issues are guns-and-bombs people whose mental concepts are stuck in the 19th century. They wrongly assume, as the US official revealed, that China's rise can only be negative for the US.
    This may or may not have been true in the 19th century, but it's certainly not true in the 21st century. We now live in a small, interdependent world. If our priority is to restore global economic growth, it is now in China's national interest to see a strong thriving US economy – and vice versa. It is vital to emphasize that global interdependence is not just growing in the economic sphere. It is equally true in our battle to combat global warming, pandemics like Ebola and Zika and the so-called Islamic State. In short, as I explain in "The Great Convergence," all 7 billion occupants on Earth are sailing on the same boat. It is the fundamental responsibility of the G20 to take care of our fragile global vessel.
    The Hangzhou G20 meeting can demonstrate that the G20 leaders now understand better their global responsibilities by taking a few small but significant steps. President Obama can take the lead. He has nothing to lose, since he is stepping down soon. He can demonstrate that the US has liberated itself from zero-sum thinking by announcing that the country will join the AIIB instead of opposing it. Congressional approval can come later, but the symbolic gesture would create a new positive chemistry for the G20.

  3. China can reciprocate by announcing that it is prepared to share its high-speed rail technology with the US on preferential terms to help jumpstart the US economy. Eventually, if China is allowed to build a high-speed railway from the Pacific to the Atlantic coast of the US, it will have an enormous positive effect on US-China relations. China can make a start by proposing to build high-speed railways in California (from San Francisco to Los Angeles) and in the Northeast (from Boston to New York and Washington). Such symbolic projects will show that G20 leaders now understand that concrete cooperation is preferable to issuing meaningless communiqués.
    One point is worth emphasizing here. A China-US partnership on infrastructure will be a match made in heaven. America needs new infrastructure; the American Society of Civil Engineers has projected a $1.44 trillion investment funding gap in the US between 2016 and 2025 and warned of a mounting drag on business activity, exports and incomes. China has the financial and institutional capacity to build such infrastructure.
    An unusual US-China partnership on infrastructure development could be complemented by another equally unusual partnership between Europe, Japan and India to build infrastructure in Africa. The long-term strategic nightmare for Europe is clear. Over time, with the population explosion in Africa, the influx of illegal migrants from Africa will only grow. The recent surge of boats crossing the Mediterranean provides a clear warning of what is coming for Europe. I have warned about this coming human flood in an essay for the National Interest in 1992. Europe needs to build dikes. The only truly effective dike would be the promotion of economic growth and development in Africa. Europe can try to do this on its own, but its colonial history in Africa still creates psychological obstacles. Working with India and Japan, more realistic projects will be conceived and launched in Africa.

  4. In short, if the G20 is to demonstrate that it is serious about its mission of promoting global growth, it has to snap out of its current mold of issuing long communiqués and launch concrete projects that demonstrate that real economic cooperation is taking place. This is why it would be good to start with infrastructure. It is clearly visible. People will see the benefits. Faith in the G20 will be restored.
    Faith in the G20 also needs to be restored for another reason. Many people in advanced developed countries now see globalization as a threat and not as an opportunity. This is why the British voted against their own economic interests in opting for Brexit. Similarly, the emergence of Donald Trump reflects a strong desire among the American body politic to build new walls and cut the US off from the world. Abstract economic arguments cannot change such attitudes. Another bestselling book by Tom Friedman arguing that the world is flat will not do the trick.
    Instead, what the public needs to see are concrete projects of cooperation that yield both jobs and benefits. The initial projects have to be high profile and be seen to make a difference to the lives of people. Symbolic steps can also help: the G20 should endorse both the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the "One Belt, One Road" initiative. In short, if G20 leaders could demonstrate that they have liberated themselves from 19th century geopolitical zero-sum thinking, they would revitalize the G20 process.
    Even small things like photo opportunities could help to send the world a signal that their thinking is changing. At their traditional photo shoot, the G20 leaders in future should take two pictures instead of one. In the first picture, they should all wear their national hats, demonstrating that they are national leaders. In the second photo, they should wear a common hat, perhaps a blue hat with the United Nations logo, to demonstrate that they also share a common responsibility of managing our small, fragile planet. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

    Kishore Mahbubani is a Singaporean diplomat who currently teaches public policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Previously, he served as President of the United Nations Security Council. He is a member of the Berggruen Institute's 21st Century Council