G20 summit, overshadowed by geopolitics, still out to prove itself

The G20 Research Group’s Hélène Emorine, who was on the ground in Argentina, gives her main takeaways from the G20 summit.

By: /
December 5, 2018
G20
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, December 1, 2018. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin

Co-chair, G20 Research Group, Munk School of Global

Leaders of the world’s biggest economies met this weekend in Argentina for the annual Group of Twenty (G20) summit, with the goal of tackling some of today’s most challenging global problems.

When Argentina took over the G20 presidency last year, it set out three key themes for the summit: the future of work, infrastructure for development, and a sustainable food future.

But the summit’s agenda was quickly overshadowed by the geopolitical crises and tensions dividing the G20 members that erupted in the weeks preceding the summit. Allegations regarding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, overt Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the ongoing trade war between the United States and China drew attention away from the official agenda.

And, while leaders were able to agree to a joint communiqué at the last minute, the communiqué’s lack of substance and support for anti-protectionist measures was seen as a step backwards for the G20. This was without a doubt the most acrimonious and tense G20 summit since the leaders began meeting a decade ago in 2008. 

Coming on the heels of June’s contentious G7 summit in Québec, where US President Donald Trump withdrew from the joint communiqué via Twitter, and a tense APEC summit last month, where members were unable to reach an agreement for the first time, expectations for the G20 were low.

This G20 would have been difficult for any host to navigate, but Argentine President Mauricio Macri was in a particularly weak position to steer the group to consensus. Macri is markedly unpopular in Argentina due to the deep currency crisis currently roiling the country.

The numerous geopolitical crises leading up to the summit certainly did not make Macri’s job easier.

The G20 was the first international forum the Saudi crown prince, commonly known as MBS, attended following the allegations levelled against him. The day before the summit began, Canada imposed sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals believed to be linked to the murder of Khashoggi, joining France, the US and Germany in taking action against Saudi Arabia. At the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron was caught on video reprimanding MBS for never listening to him. And, at the close of the summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated his demand that Saudi Arabia extradite the suspects involved in the Khashoggi murder.

The crown prince’s attendance posed a particularly awkward diplomatic challenge for Macri: ahead of MBS’s arrival, Argentine authorities took the first steps into opening an investigation into alleged war crimes perpetrated by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, after Human Rights Watch filed a submission with an Argentinian federal prosecutor. At the summit, MBS found an ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin as the two leaders shared a public boisterous handshake that made headlines around the world, while the other leaders carefully steered clear from MBS.

In response to the investigation, MBS, who was scheduled to stay at the Buenos Aires Four Seasons hotel, moved into the Saudi embassy, which was reinforced with barricades and bullet-proof windows earlier in the week, according to Argentine reporters.

Putin was also at the centre of a geopolitical crisis at the summit after Russia seized Ukrainian naval vessels in the Sea of Azov. In response, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland spearheaded a G7 foreign ministers’ statement condemning the aggression and urging for the release of Ukrainian sailors. A day before the summit began, Trump had abruptly cancelled his scheduled meeting with Putin via a tweet, without warning the Kremlin.

Finally, all eyes were on the first bilateral meeting between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping since the trade war between the US and China erupted earlier this year. Afterwards, the White House announced that the meeting was “highly successful.” Trump agreed not to increase tariffs on USD$200 billion of Chinese goods from 10 to 25 percent on January 1, 2019, as he had previously threatened. The White House statement, however, warned that if an agreement was not reached in 90 days, the tariffs would be raised to 25 percent.

In exchange, China pledged to buy agricultural, energy, industrial and other products to reduce the trade imbalance between the two countries. 

A communiqué for an alternative reality

Tensions carried through to the negotiations of the summit’s final communiqué, released on Saturday. Usually, leaders’ sherpas, or personal representatives, negotiate about 80 percent of the communiqué before leaders arrive at the summit. On the first day of the summit however, speaking off the record, a senior European Union official informed reporters that subsequent versions of the negotiated draft communiqué had been rejected by the American delegation who objected to language against protectionism and a basic commitment to promoting multilateralism and a rules-based world order.  

Throughout the summit, it looked like a real possibility that, for the first time in the G20’s history, the leaders would not be able to produce a joint communiqué. Facing a prospect of no communiqué, members of a European delegation told journalists at the summit that they were hard at work on their own separate declaration.

Surprisingly, leaders were able to present a united front and produce a final communiqué, produced after an all-night session on Friday. A summit without a communiqué would have been unprecedented in the history of the G20, and would have called into question the legitimacy and the survival of the group. Given the geopolitical tensions overshadowing the summit, the joint communiqué is an achievement in and of itself.

But the communiqué glossed over key issues like protectionism, human rights, migration and refugees. The communiqué made some substantive commitments on the Argentinian presidency’s chosen themes: infrastructure, food sustainability and the future of work. France was able to include a statement of support for the Paris Agreement, although the US unsurprisingly reaffirmed its withdrawal from the accord. And, the Canadian delegation was successful in including a gender mainstreaming agenda across the G20, a first for the international forum. The G20’s gender mainstreaming agenda focuses on including a gender perspective on commitments such as the future of work, where G20 members pledged to bridge the digital gender divide to better equip women to take advantage of new digital technologies.  

Yet, the communiqué was full of banalities and platitudes on the very issues that monopolized attention during the summit. Human rights were not mentioned. Speaking off the record, senior European officials suggested to reporters that Saudi Arabia and Turkey rejected a Canadian proposal to include a statement of support for freedom of the press in the communiqué. Russian aggression against Ukraine was absent from the document. Migration was barely mentioned and received no substantive commitment. And the communiqué did not include the usual G20 statement promising to work together against protectionism. The failure to include a commitment to fighting protectionism is a step backward for an international forum that was created to manage the global economy.

What’s next?

Japan took over the presidency of the G20 Saturday evening — it will host the 2019 G20 summit in Osaka from June 28-29, 2019. The Japanese presidency will focus on free trade, science and technology innovation, infrastructure for development, global health, climate change, aging populations, and promoting the Sustainable Development Goals and international development.

It will be difficult for Japan to gain momentum following the difficult and tense Buenos Aires summit. Leaders will remember the many geopolitical crises overshadowing the summit and the lack of substantive progress. And the Japanese will only have seven months to prepare for the summit rather than the customary year as Argentina chose to extend its presidency to an unusually-long 18 months.

All eyes will be on next year’s Osaka summit to see if the G20 will be able to address the thorny, contentious issues facing the world in a way that moves past banalities and platitudes. As former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin — one of the leading forces behind the creation of the G20 — says, multilateral cooperation through international bodies like the G20 are the best chance the world has of successfully solving the world’s most pressing problems. After a Buenos Aires summit overshadowed by geopolitics, it is therefore up to next year’s summit to show that leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies can still take ambitious, collective and multilateral action on the key issues facing the international system.