This is what success looks like these days for a major multinational institution: The G20 summit in Argentina ended on Saturday with exhalations of relief simply because no one walked away from the meeting, and a joint communiqué was signed by everyone.
It was easy to overlook that the agreed statement was thin gruel, and that it contained an abstention from the United States – the world’s biggest economy and second-biggest polluter – on the critical issue of combatting climate change. Comfort was found in the fact the world didn’t appear to have gotten any worse during the 48 hours the G20 leaders were gathered in Buenos Aires. In the era of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman – a trio of global disruption – that’s an accomplishment.
Those three men nonetheless managed to define the Buenos Aires summit with their behaviour. Mr. Trump, who blew up the G7 summit in Quebec earlier this year by refusing to sign the painstakingly negotiated final communiqué, kept everyone on tenterhooks Saturday about whether he would do the same again in Argentina.
This time he signed, though only after pressing for U.S. opposition to the Paris Agreement on climate change to be included in the statement, along with other changes in the text that contradicted the very intent and spirit of the G20. Then, he showed his disdain for the entire gathering by walking briskly away from a handshake with the summit’s host, Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Microphones caught Mr. Trump instructing someone off camera to “get me out of here.”
Stock markets will likely be boosted on Monday by the news that Mr. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping reached an agreement on the sidelines of the summit that will put off a damaging trade war – at least for 90 days beyond Jan. 1, when tariffs on US$200-billion worth of Chinese goods were supposed to spike from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. But the changes Mr. Trump sought and won in the communiqué will do long-term harm to the ideals of the G20, free trade and international co-operation in general.
The first gathering of the G20 was held in Washington at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, and the decisions made there were seen as key in co-ordinating a global response to the crash. The communiqué issued at the end of the Washington meeting highlighted “the critical importance of rejecting protectionism and not turning inward in times of financial uncertainty.” The World Trade Organization was named as a key institution in that effort.
No longer. At Mr. Trump’s insistence, the pledge about combatting protectionism was removed from this year’s statement. The WTO was mentioned only as a body in need of unspecified reforms.
There are many, of course, who won’t mourn the decline of the G20, which always focused on trade and macroeconomic issues to the near-complete exclusion of issues such as fighting poverty and promoting human rights. And when the commitments to fighting problems such as climate change and protectionism start to wobble, the organization’s refusal to tackle other issues becomes even more concerning.
The other moment the Buenos Aires summit will likely be remembered for is the laughing high-five handshake between the Russian President and the Saudi Crown Prince, two men who arrived in Argentina as the summit’s black sheep. The greeting looked almost celebratory, as if Mr. Putin and the Crown Prince were revelling in the disruption they’ve managed to cause.
The ruthless actions of Mr. Putin and the Crown Prince have come to define the lawlessness and global disorder that has emerged as multilateral institutions such as the G7, the G20, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have lost clout: Mr. Putin by using his country’s military to push neighbouring Ukraine deeper and deeper into crisis; the Crown Prince by allegedly ordering the murder – according to the CIA, among other sources – of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Both leaders faced doses of ostracization and pressure in Argentina. In what was portrayed as a show of anger over Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels – but which might have had as much to do with the optics of meeting Mr. Putin as a Department of Justice continues to probe Mr. Trump’s business ties to Russia, including during the 2016 election campaign – Mr. Trump cancelled a formal bilateral meeting with the Russian President. Still, the two men spoke over dinner and there was no sign that anything that happened at the G20 would convince Mr. Putin to end Russia’s damaging and dangerous blockade of two Ukrainian ports on the Azov Sea.
Quite the contrary. In a press conference at the end of the summit, Mr. Putin said “the war will continue” as long as Ukraine’s pro-Western government remained in power in Kiev.
The Crown Prince was similarly forced to endure some uncomfortable moments in Buenos Aires. The awkward “family photo” at the end of the meeting sees Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader off to the far right of the picture, leaving the distinct impression that no one wanted to be photographed standing beside the man who allegedly ordered the killing and dismemberment of Mr. Khashoggi.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he used a “frank” one-on-one meeting with the Crown Prince to “highlight our concerns and our need for better answers on the killing of Khashoggi” and to call for a ceasefire in the war in Yemen. So did French President Emmanuel Macron, who was caught having a tense argument with the Saudi heir and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The Crown Prince received a major boost over the weekend from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who told reporters in Buenos Aires the United States would maintain its strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. Mr. Pompeo said in a CNN interview there was “no direct evidence” linking the Crown Prince to the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, despite media reports indicating the CIA had “medium-to-high” confidence MBS was behind the execution.
The Crown Prince was also warmly greeted by Mr. Xi, who told the Saudi leader that China would “stick together with Saudi Arabia on issues involving their core interests.”
As with Mr. Putin, there were no real repercussions for the Crown Prince in Buenos Aires. Again, the opposite happened. At the end of the meeting, it was confirmed Saudi Arabia would host the 2020 summit of an organization that could by then be in even greater crisis.