NEWS ANALYSIS: Trump's G-20 ends with few prizes, little consensus on his goals
Ahead of his first G-20 summit, Donald Trump took to Twitter to weigh in on his concerns.
From bad trade deals ("the worst’’) to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions ("this nonsense’’) to steel dumping ("don’t like’’), Trump highlighted what he’d hit head-on in Hamburg.
The problem for the president: he comes home from the Group of 20 summit with little concrete progress on those issues, while the differences between himself and the rest of the world are greater than ever.
Trump got lectured on trade by China and France and won platitudes from other nations — but no evident progress — on North Korea. The starkest difference was on climate: the G-20’s final statement called the 2015 Paris accord "irreversible." Trump abandoned the pact last month.
In his first sit-down with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Trump’s twin concerns, Iran and Ukraine, were barely touched upon as the two agreed on a Syrian cease-fire, details to come. On North Korea, meetings between Trump and the leaders of South Korea, Japan and China ended without a clear consensus about how to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The words "North Korea" are not in the final communique.
This leaves Trump, weakened at home by the swirling congressional and FBI probes into his campaign, in danger of being undermined abroad as well, with a limited ability to rally world leaders to his most important causes, experts said.
One against the world
"A big message of it is this 19-versus-one frame,’’ said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They are quite isolated.’’
Trump didn’t go home totally empty-handed, though, and his team seemed upbeat when briefing reporters on Air Force One on the return flight. He did seem to be getting the peculiar art of global summitry down on this trip — less scowling, more back-slapping — and some foreign delegations said Trump’s team was more engaged in the work of crafting a final statement, even if the outcome put stark differences on display.
"The #G20Summit was a wonderful success and carried out beautifully by Chancellor Angela Merkel," Trump tweeted from Air Force One on the ride home.
Linking Trump’s earlier stop in Poland to the G-20, national security adviser H.R. McMaster said the trip represented "a recognition by us, one, that America first doesn’t mean the rest of the world last, or America first doesn’t mean America alone, and it means peace, prosperity and the rule of law."
In Poland, the president "gave a stirring affirmation of our values and why it’s important for us to understand who we are and be determined to protect our values," he said. Trump’s Warsaw speech raised eyebrows by twinning stifling government bureaucracies with terrorism as threats to western civilisation.
And top economic adviser Gary Cohn said that even talks on climate — one of the sharpest area differences between Trump and other leaders — were "not a situation where there was contentious discussion."
Trump also reserved his right to impose steel tariffs as a way to fight back against other nations, including China, dumping too much steel into the marketplace. In summit parlance, the G-20 recognised the right of countries to use "limited trade defence instruments" — also known as tariffs. Language about a "level playing field" and "reciprocal" trade in the final communique also could have come straight from Trump.
Trump’s most significant achievement at the G-20 came during a two-plus-hour meeting with Putin, where the two leaders struck an agreement for a cease-fire in part of Syria — "a major, major success," said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. But even that meeting yielded controversy, with both sides offering competing narratives about how much Trump pressured Putin on suspected Russian meddling in the US election last year.
No glowing orbs
Among the many bilats, trilats and pull-asides, one thing Trump didn’t do was to take questions from the traveling news media, as is typical of US presidents at the G-20, or to give formal remarks at the end of the meeting. Trump also didn’t hold a news conference on his week-long trip in May to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Belgium, and Italy.
The president largely avoided the cringe-worthy moments that marked May’s G-7 outing and trip to the Middle East, though social media exploded over a photo of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, sitting in his seat at the G-20 table, flanked by China’s Xi Jinping and Britain’s Theresa May.
Trump’s friendlier personal approach, despite significant policy differences, could pay off for him in the future, said Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, part of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"Memories are short. These multilateral meetings are huge,’’ she said. "You can do fantastic networking.’’
On trade, Trump also found himself the target of thinly veiled barbs from other world leaders voicing concern about the protectionist policies that he has embraced — including from Xi, who accused "developed nations" of engaging in unfair trade practices.
During a working lunch on trade, Trump told the gathered world leaders that he would always defend the American worker, according to a western diplomatic official familiar with the closed-door session.
French President Emmanuel Macron challenged Trump’s view that the US is losing out on trade, telling the US president that it doesn’t make sense to talk about bilateral trade balances in a multilateral world, the official said.
Brandishing an Apple iPhone, which is designed in the US, assembled in China and sold around the world, Macron told reporters Saturday that it’s a "profound mistake’’ to judge the benefits of trade through the prism of deficits or surpluses — something Trump does regularly.
It is trade where Trump’s relations with world leaders are mostly likely to further deteriorate, and most dramatically, especially if the US goes forward with a proposal for tariffs, quotas or a combination of both on steel imports, citing national security grounds. A decision could come any time — and that would mean any goodwill from Hamburg would be shattered, said Wright of Brookings.
"All of this will be for naught, if in a week’s time he imposes these steel tariffs,’’ he said.