The G20’s Role Reversals

The list of pressing global issues confronting G20 leaders seems to grow every year. But this year, the very countries that once brought solutions to the table may be the biggest problems of all.

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Since the Group of Twenty (G20) was founded in 1999, the United States and China have generally managed to restore or instill confidence in the international order, even when other members were mired in crisis. And in the ensuing years, both countries have maintained stable growth and weathered economic storms better than most.

G20 summits thus became occasions for the US and China to flex their muscles as they helped others, not least the members of the eurozone. But, at this year’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, the tables seem to have turned. The US under President Donald Trump has no appetite – or, it appears, the ability – for global leadership, and China is confronting mounting threats to growth and stability, whereas the European Union is now growing faster than at any time since 2008. And recent elections in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France seem to have closed the door on the threat of populism in Europe, at least for now.

This has certainly boosted European self-confidence, reflected in the EU’s agreement with Japan on a free-trade agreement and the French energy giant Total’s first big investment in Iran since the nuclear accord with that country was agreed in 2015. And, though both actions are sure to rankle Trump, he is presiding over the most unpopular and shambolic US administration in living memory. And, not surprisingly, his near-daily displays of puerile belligerence, have carried over into diplomacy. At the first international conference that he attended – the G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, in May – Trump shoved another head of state out of the way to get to the front of a group photo, and said of the Germans that they were “very bad.”

China has been actively trying to take advantage of America’s declining prestige internationally, and has made headway, particularly in promoting itself as a defender of multilateralism and the Paris climate agreement, from which Trump has withdrawn the US. But these efforts are hobbled by China economic worries, particularly the need to address its ongoing buildup of corporate and local government debt. And its behavior on the world stage, though certainly less boorish than Trump’s, has left other G20 member states wondering how much it can be trusted as a global leader.