G20 leaders face more trouble at home than abroad

World leaders realise that troubles at home will be reduced if they can genuinely hammer out global deals that work.

By Peter Apps

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Published: Fri 28 Jun 2019, 8:50 PM

Last updated: Fri 28 Jun 2019, 10:53 PM

World leaders have no shortage of global issues to discuss at this week's Group of 20 summit but, perhaps more than ever before, most will be more focused on their own domestic politics than on international diplomacy.
The two priorities, of course, remain indissolubly linked. For US President Donald Trump, success on trade and holding US allies and potential foes to account feels central to his prospects for re-election in 2020. Indeed, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that he is paying more attention to the first televised debates between his potential Democratic Party challengers than anything taking place in Osaka. Trump and his team also remain highly focused on Iran, in a confrontation that - potentially like the G20 - increasingly demonstrates just how much risk the United States and its potential foes are willing to take to appear strong, even at the risk of hugely damaging mutual consequences.
Trump would much rather have Americans talk about almost anything other than the upcoming testimony of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, who has said he will speak in front of a July Congressional committee on his investigation into potential Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
But the US president's reluctance not to show weakness or insecurity will be more than matched by those of his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Xi will insist on avoiding discussion of any domestic dissent, particularly recent unrest in Hong Kong over a law that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland.
China has said it will not allow the protests to be discussed at the G20, but the presence of protesters outside the summit may make that implausible. Many foreign states are increasingly concerned at a deteriorating human rights picture in China, including the detention of more than 1 million ethnic Muslim Uighurs in "re-education camps". Several Western leaders, perhaps including Trump, may wish to raise it with Xi.
Several of those Western leaders, however, must feel their own power ebbing fast. British Prime Minister Theresa May has announced she will be stepping down. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has quit as leader of Germany's Christian Democrats, and faces questions about her health. French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both face difficult domestic headwinds at home and are in danger of losing their next election. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's grip looks dented after his AK Party was defeated in a rerun of local elections in Istanbul.
Even among those who lack any clear imminent threat, the level of paranoia is striking. In principle, the insecurity among G20 leaders could make the summit go much better. The Western leaders already on their way out may be most concerned about their legacies, while those still battling to retain their position have an even more vested interest in a world and society that works. Much of the discontent driving current unrest comes from economic hardship, and the G20 was devised primarily to make the global economy work better.
There are some fronts on which this might be true. Shortly after the G20 summit, Trump will visit Seoul, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in appears determined to arrange another meeting between the US president and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moon's determination to ensure there is US-North Korean dialogue is controversial in all three countries, but it has reduced the immediate risk of a major war on the peninsula Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been similarly focused on keeping Trump connected to the broader international system, despite widespread dislike of the US president in Japan. Such actions and regulations keep the wheels of diplomacy turning, and will be vital to a functional G20.
Such an approach is becoming rare. Embattled leaders - democratic or authoritarian - appear to be resorting ever more quickly to moves that will deepen international antagonism, sometimes simultaneously shoring up their popularity at home.
This is true when it comes to the United States and Trump. Washington finds itself in the position it is with both Iran and China because Trump tore up meticulously negotiated agreements. His principal objection to the Iran nuclear deal appears to be that it was negotiated by his predecessor as president, Barack Obama. When he moved away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Trump effectively fired the first shots of a trade war with China that has escalated since. Tensions with China and Iran would almost certainly have increased in any case, but such moves made matters harder.
Maybe, just maybe, this could be the G20 summit that starts to turn things around, where world leaders realise that troubles at home will be reduced if they can genuinely hammer out global deals that work. Or perhaps it will be one where they simply choose to double down on previous rhetoric, leaving the world more divided and less able to faces challenges than before.
- Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs.

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