TONY KEVIN. Hamburg G20 : Much was achieved

Jul 11, 2017

Angela Merkel’s firm and statesmanlike chairmanship steered the Hamburg G20
to a content-rich, global economics and climate change-dominated leaders’ declaration  

Politics and ideology were largely set aside, and the warm atmosphere was productive of consensus. Merkel was ably supported by, in particular China, France, Russia, and Japan, but also by an unexpectedly well-behaved Trump. Theresa May and Malcolm Turnbull played supportive roles in helping hold this potentially fractious G20 together. On the Paris Accord, G20 explicitly became G19 plus a dissenting United States. Differences on international free trade issues were better contained. The Trump-Putin bilateral meeting was well managed and presented by both sides, as a modest
first step towards US-Russia detente. But Russiagate is still running riot in Washington, where nothing has yet changed. Australia can be generally pleased at these outcomes.

The Hamburg G20 leaders declaration was issued a few hours ago, the leaders have left for home, and the street cleanup after the traditional radical protests is underway. What was achieved? Actually, a great deal. This quick overview commentary is based mainly on excellent Guardian online reporting and comment .

Part 1 – the multilateral dimension

G20 began in 1999, as an international multilateral forum focussed on economic policy cooperation. It brought together leaders of 20 major economies, together representing around 80% of global output and trade. The formal membership is Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, and the European Union. As countries around the lower end of the economic scale jostle for places, attendance has de facto crept up to include a few others, e.g. Norway and Spain. Australia can thank the need for global diversity, and Kevin Rudd’s championship of G20 cooperation during the 2007 Global Financial Crisis, for our continuing membership now as we slip down the economic league tables. It is a valuable policy forum and showcase for Australia.

G20 is an amiable, non-compulsory talking shop, which produces annual consensus communiqués to inspire harmonious international economic policies. The ‘sherpas’ – senior national officials – draft the communiquse before and during the three-day summits, during which the leaders politely hear one another’s views in closed meetings, and generally shmooze. But leaders must finally endorse these ‘leaders’ declarations’.

G20 Summits are also occasions for important bilateral and small-group meetings on the side.

Much depends on the Chair as to the tone of G20 Summits and what is achieved in them. There were efforts in recent years as East-West relations deteriorated to make G20 Summits more ideological, more supportive of ‘Western democracies’-pressed political agendas based on US leadership of a claimed ‘global community’, in which China and Russia tended to be more and more pushed out to the margins.. The low point was the 2014 Brisbane G20 chaired by Tony Abbott, at the height of the Ukraine crisis, a tense and unproductive meeting.

Merkel chose Hamburg deliberately, a city with a tradition of vivid radical street protest and confrontation with police. She wanted some drama, a reminder of the real world out there beyond the champagne and limousines. This year the demonstrators’ pet hate figures were conspicuously Trump, Putin and Erdogan.

The anticipated issues of importance and high drama in Hamburg were to be the future of the Paris Accord on climate change after Trump’s blunt rejection a few weeks ago; the future of global free trade under new threat from Trump’s protectionist declarations; and some political hot-button issues – North Korea’s nuclear threat and recent test of an ICBM, and continuing Russia-West tensions over alleged Russian US election hacking, the Syrian war, Ukraine, and sanctions against Russia and counter-sanctions. Taken together, all these tensions had potential to derail the meeting and the G20 ideal with it.

Fortunately the meeting went well. Merkel deftly steered it to a content-rich leaders’ declaration. She was aided by a cooperative Xi, Putin, Macron, Abe, and Moon (South Korea). May, Turnbull and Trudeau took low but useful profiles in support of these goals.

The meeting will be remembered for Merkel’s tactful management of a diminished US leadership profile and policy impact in an increasingly multipolar world order. And for how civility and mutual respect were maintained, despite this major ongoing change in power relativities.

On the Paris Accord on climate change policy, the G20 became a G19. Trump was left alone in the naughty corner. Merkel publicly deplored but reluctantly accepted the US decision to stand aside, as registered in unprecedented key communique paragraphs. Importantly, the US did not try to build a rejectionist coalition around itself. Saudi Arabia, UK, Australia, Canada, China and Russia stood with the G19 consensus. The hope was widely expressed that US state governments and major corporations will adhere to the Paris Accord targets.

On the other big issue, free trade policy, differences were contained within a well-balanced declaration. Concessions were made not only to Trump’s well-known economic nationalism but to wider and spreading concerns in Western Europe about the harsh impact of doctrinaire free-trade globalisation on job-losing countries. The communique was noticeably less strident and ideologically rigid than in previous years. There was specific language that supported US concerns about global steel overproduction and dumping. But the WTO doctrinal framework and institutions for global free trade survive.

The communiqué offers rich policy content on issues as diverse as cooperation in international communications technologies (ICT), development goals, Africa, transmigration and refugee flow issues, women in development, even on excessive use of antibiotics. The ICT language, aspiring to internationally agreed codes of conduct in computer technology, was especially important given the focus over recent months on alleged Russian election hacking.

The growing North Korea nuclear threat proved a non-issue in Hamburg. It had been neutralised by the just prior Moscow agreement between Xi and Putin to call on both North and South Korea to take tension-reducing steps, a stance quickly endorsed by South Korea’s President Moon.

Part 2 – The bilateral dimension, and how Australia comes out

The Trump-Putin bilateral meeting was an intense focus of media interest. It lasted much longer than expected, over two hours, with evidently good atmospherics between the two men. The outcome was represented slightly differently by Lavrov and Tillerson who were the only other participants in the ‘four plus interpreters only’ meeting. Lavrov emphasised that Putin had answered all Trump’s detailed questions about alleged Russian hacking, and had left Trump satisfied. Tillerson was more cautious, saying there had been frank exchanges and there was now more understanding of how to safeguard against such situations in future. Either way, the boil has been lanced.

But policy deliverables were few: something on discussing localised demilitarisation zones in Syria,   but nothing on impounded Russian diplomatic properties in USA, and nothing on lifting Ukraine sanctions. Prudently in view of the continuing strongly anti-Russian climate of opinion in Washington, aspirations were kept low on both sides, and both went away satisfied.

Trump had left himself some room to move, by making a strong ‘clash of values’ speech the day before in Warsaw, which the Poles gratefully interpreted as anti-Russian in spirit.

Clearly, Lavrov and Tillerson felt that better atmospherics were all that could be achieved in the direction of US-Russian detente at this stage. The groundwork was laid in Hamburg for hopefully improved US-Russia relations, as the Washington Russophobe wave begins to recede in coming months. Meanwhile, America’s UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has seemingly been left free to carry the rhetorical anti-Russian torch at home. Like the Poland speech, this may be a tactical concession to Trump’s most bitter critics.


Australia took an appropriately modest stance at the meeting, as did UK and Canada. At one point, reportedly, Macron asked May and Turnbull to make a last effort to persuade Trump to come on board the G19 Paris Accord consensus. Possibly, Turnbull might have used the opportunity of his invited ride in Trump’s ‘The Beast’ armoured vehicle, with spouses, to advocate such a course, but we do not know this.

Australia will have obtained first-hand diplomatic intelligence from the meeting of the way the world and the Asian region are now moving quite rapidly towards multipolarity. Trump is both a cause and a symptom of this momentous shift. As the US global leadership role changes, Australian foreign policy needs to adapt too. We could not do better than to follow the examples of Merkel and Macron in Hamburg. They were excellent role models in every way: taking on Trump where they had to, but decently respecting and accommodating his concerns and his public image where they could.

Former DFAT officer Tony Kevin is the author of several non-fiction books, most recently Return to Moscow  (UWA Publishing 2017).

Share and Enjoy !


Receive articles straight to your Inbox

How often?

Thank you for subscribing!