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Promise and Peril for Argentina’s G20 Presidency

WASHINGTON, DC – It is June 2016, and things seem to be looking up for Argentine President Mauricio Macri. Argentina has just been approved to fill the G20 presidency in 2018. The US presidential race is heating up, but it seems all but certain that Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination and sail to victory in November. Macri is feeling optimistic about advancing his international agenda with a like-minded ally.

Fast-forward to today. Macri must be wringing his hands over an international environment that is far more challenging than he probably anticipated. Still, all is not lost for Argentina’s upcoming G20 presidency.

To be sure, confronting US President Donald Trump and his “America First” agenda will not be easy. At the G20 Summit in Hamburg last month, Trump already managed to isolate himself from the 19 other leaders, including Macri, by standing behind his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement – a deal that virtually the entire international community considers irreversible.

Similarly, Trump has demanded renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That process, which begins this month, is unlikely to be resolved quickly and, if handled clumsily, could disrupt US relations with G20 members Mexico and Canada.

Moreover, Trump isn’t the only factor outside Macri’s control that may affect his ability to manage the G20 presidency. There is a strong chance that the Brexit negotiations will not be completed by the deadline, leading to a “no deal” scenario that generates a serious economic shock to Britain and possibly continental Europe. Likewise, the many conflicts in the Middle East, unfolding humanitarian disasters in Africa, and the deteriorating situation in Venezuela are having destabilizing consequences far beyond national borders.

Upcoming elections in Latin America’s G20 members are another source of uncertainty. Argentina is set to hold legislative elections this October, and Mexico and Brazil will hold presidential elections next year, with populist candidates expected to perform well.

So what can Macri do to maximize Argentina’s chances of a successful G20 presidency? When it comes to Trump, he may seek to capitalize on their friendship, which precedes their political careers. Yet this relationship carries some risks, owing to questions about Trump’s business relationships in Argentina.

More promising, Macri can and should work closely with civil-society groups and activists to ensure sufficient space for participation. In Hamburg, violent clashes with protesters left nearly 200 police injured and German insurance companies with a €12 million ($14.2 million) bill. The Argentinian G20 Unit must recognize the possibility of disruption, especially given the unpopularity of some of the government’s austerity measures, which have already led to mass protests.

More broadly, Argentina’s G20 presidency remains an important opportunity to advance Macri’s foreign-policy agenda, which stresses international cooperation. With Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto in his final year in office and Brazilian President Michel Temer hamstrung by scandals, Macri may wish to try to position Argentina as a regional leader in bringing Latin American perspectives to the G20.

Such leadership might enable Macri to rejuvenate the troubled Mercosur bloc, which includes several Latin American countries and could support national efforts to reduce poverty through increased trade and investment. This effort – and Argentina’s broader G20 agenda – would receive an added boost if negotiations on a European Union-Mercosur trade agreement are successfully concluded this December.

Argentina is also well placed to use its G20 presidency to build on the climate and energy plan agreed by the G19 (without the US). Macri has declared 2017 to be the “year of renewable energy,” and committed Argentina to meeting 20% of its electricity demand with renewable energy by 2025.

Furthermore, the Argentine government now participates in the High Ambition Coalition, which was instrumental in securing the 2015 Paris climate accord. This informal group, comprising countries ranging from Germany and Brazil to the Marshall Islands, declared its “unshakeable” commitment to the accord. And Argentina was the first country to submit a more ambitious national climate change plan as part of the Paris accord.

Macri should take advantage of the credibility established by these moves – which must, of course, be reinforced by progress toward Argentina’s renewable-energy targets and reducing deforestation – to encourage other countries to revise their pledges. The timing could not be better. Because the current set of pledges is inadequate to limit the rise in global temperature to the Paris accord’s target of “well below two degrees Celsius,” the United Nations will hold a special dialogue in 2018 to encourage countries to submit more ambitious pledges before 2020.

Argentina can also link its G20 goals on jobs and technology with the objective of building a low-carbon economy. An important component of any effort to combine these agendas is the completion of Argentina’s long-term low-emission development strategy before the 2018 G20 summit. After all, progress on such strategies – part of the Paris agreement – sends a strong signal to investors seeking to mitigate climate-related risks and take advantage of new opportunities in renewables, electric vehicles, and batteries.

Global volatility will undoubtedly affect Argentina’s G20 presidency. But so will Argentina’s own actions. To maximize the chances of a successful presidency, Macri should focus on working closely with Argentina’s European and Latin American allies, while reinforcing his government’s credibility on issues that are critical to all.