G-20 summits are typically dull affairs. Given the complexity and different policy goals the twenty largest economies in the world bring to the table, such gatherings are not a venue where world peace is inked or global poverty is remedied. However, it is an opportunity for countries to help mitigate world challenges within the margins of their capabilities. For example, in the heat of the Global Financial Crisis in 2009, the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh was an especially relevant exercise in crisis mitigation. In Pittsburgh, a newly minted President Obama spoke loftily of a “new economic order” and whipped support to mitigate the worst financial crisis in modern history. It was a summit with a real crisis, but it also had a United States that was willing to bear the burden of leadership. Such summits are the exception and not the rule.
The most recent G-20 in Hamburg was another exception, yet Hamburg’s relevancy was confusing at least and likely undeserved. While every country delegation likely spoke of challenges, there is no existential crisis to global stability that is not self-inflicted. The global economy has recovered from 2009. Unemployment in the U.S. is back to pre-crisis levels, and its stock markets have enjoyed significant wealth-adding gains for well over a year. Europe has endured a heightened level of terrorist attacks, but the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in its twilight. Today’s world is one of purely self-selected crises: Brexit, the willful incompetence in the Trump Administration, and the authoritarian leanings of major players like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia make for purely unnecessary crises with little or no chance for mitigation. Hamburg truly was an unnecessarily relevant summit. If it were a useful summit, its leaders declaration would have called out its own membership for its economic protectionism and failure to comprehensively address human rights issues such as the contemporary migration crisis.
Unforced errors from traditional global leaders created a reality-TV-like atmosphere of reading the tea leaves in body-language, over-analyzing eye rolls, but most importantly a conversation around a palpable lack of leadership. The Canadian CBC most accurately called the summit a G-19+1. Never before has a country been named in the communique from the leader’s document. But Hamburg’s communique said that the present nations (populist authoritarian regimes included) are committed to the Paris Accords, with the exception of the United States. It is a small caveat in a large and ambitious document, but the importance of this language cannot be overstated. The United States was not a leader at this meeting by any objective measure.
Additionally, the G-20 as a whole has a platitude-based approach to its championing of globalization. In an important piece for Project Syndicate, Dani Rodrik pointed out the irony of a group of states signing communiques swooning over collective efforts on economics and the environment, when engaging in protectionist behaviors back home. It helps to take a step back and recognize extremely nativist economic laws that govern things like Russian cars, Turkish exports, etc. For the members of the G-20 to practice what the communiques preach, they would have to fundamentally shift their approach to domestic policy for the greater good. A leaderless G-20 will never do such a thing.
We need to occasionally step back from the news cycle and look at the greater context of present matters, especially after a G-20 summit where the United States showed no desire to be a global leader. For these exercises, I like to use the seminal work by Paul Kennedy – The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. He concludes the work by discussing the United States in the Post-Cold-War world and states.
“Because [The United States] has so much power for good or evil, because it is the lynchpin of the western alliance system and the center of the existing global economy, what it does, or does not do, is so much more important than what any of the other Powers decide to do.”
It is fun for fans of Western Liberalism to swoon over Justin Trudeau, Angela Merkel, or Emanuel Macron as the “leader of the free world” which they very well may be. But such an exercise is only to reject our own angst over the fundamental lack of U.S. leadership on the global scale. The G-20 summit should be dull and focused on the uninteresting minutia of trade, human movement, and stewardship of the finer points of Western liberalism. But we can see that, as Kennedy said, what the United States is not doing, is having real consequences for the policy areas that will carry the most important weight in the near future. That should give anyone enjoying the fruits of Western prosperity strong pause.
While this article is a cynical open to RamenIR’s G-20 week, our subsequent articles will endeavor to show why an increased utility of the group is more responsible than a wholesale rejection of it. We will explore the discussion around economics and trade, the environment, and human rights the forthcoming articles this week. We hope you enjoy the best writing our staff has to offer and that you aim to stay informed of global affairs.
Charles Johnson is the Editor-in-Chief of Ramen IR. His writings primarily focus on Eurasia and the NATO alliance. He graduated with an MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies from Johns Hopkins University SAIS, and a BA in History and International Relations from Boise State University. He also served as a Volunteer in the Republic of Georgia with the US Peace Corps. Charles is currently a Research Associate at Boise State University’s Frank Church Institute. His Twitter is @