President Trump had a successful trip to the G20 summit in Buenos Aires — if by successful we mean that his behavior didn’t raise the specter of imminent war or generate any other incident that cut into weekend coverage of the death of former president George H.W. Bush. In 2018, that counts as good news.
The summit organizers bragged about reaching an agreement on a joint declaration, but observers differed on whether the document just noted the status quo or actually walked back commitments leaders had made in prior years. For example, the United States succeeded in striking a reference to combating protectionism, and the document dealt with climate change by noting that “19 of the 20” participants reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris climate accord (the U.S. got its own clause reiterating that Trump intends to withdraw).
Unlike the NATO and G7 summits of earlier this year, the president did not immediately undercut his signing of the summit document by trashing the G20, its participants, or the agreement itself. Trump even failed to produce the most-commented-upon moment at the meeting; that belonged to the grinning fist bump between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, when the two men met Friday. Twitter marveled at the “bro-thoritarian” sight of two leaders apparently reveling in their reputations for dismembering journalists and blockading civilian boat traffic.
It’s more than a little bit ironic that the G20 treated Trump so well. The forum was created 19 years ago with the explicit purpose of fostering rules-based globalization, more international trade, and more participation of diverse developing countries in the international system. That ethos, driven by center-left politicians from the U.S. and Canada, is pretty much the exact opposite of Trump’s desire for bilateral, transactional, anything-goes deals that privilege culturally similar partners.
But with authoritarian and nativist parties and leaders on the rise around the world, the G20 of 2018 turns out to be just Trump’s kind of crowd. It provided an opportunity for Trump to talk with Putin and the Saudi crown prince, out of the site of the cameras. While the White House said there was no Trump-Putin meeting, the Russian leader assured reporters that he’d spoken to the U.S. president on the sidelines and “answered his questions” about Russia’s recent firing on Ukrainian vessels.
Putin and MBS may have been the visual of the conference, but the most-watched leader was certainly China’s Xi Jinping. His agreement to a 90-day trade “cease-fire” with Washington drew cheers form global markets. In return for Trump pledging to hold off on a new round of tariffs, Xi gave away nothing but a vague promise to buy unspecified “large” quantities of unspecified U.S. products. Even that detail was withheld from Chinese audiences.
President Trump’s usual foils at international summits were more subdued. French president Emmanuel Macron (in a world of trouble at home after a weekend of violent demonstrations in Paris against his new fuel tax) was caught on a microphone remonstrating MBS, saying, “You never listen to me.” That could have been the theme for all the democracies in Buenos Aires. It was hard to detect progress on any of the long list of issues they brought to the meeting. Discussion of Ukraine only produced taunts from Putin. There was no movement on peace in Syria, combating climate change, or increasing women’s representation in government. Only silence on the humanitarian catastrophes unfolding in Venezuela and Central America, both sparking painful and destabilizing mass migrations.
Like Macron, U.K. prime minister Theresa May likely welcomed the weekend as a respite from domestic upheavals; May has had her career obituary rewritten daily as the real-life consequences of the Brexit vote become more clear, leaving U.K. politics in deadlock. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who signaled the beginning of her exit from German politics earlier this fall, almost didn’t make it after her plane developed mechanical difficulties. She wound up on a Spanish commercial flight, plopping down in business class at the last minute next to a surprised Argentine traveler.
Trump took advantage of the setting to sign his replacement NAFTA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico and threaten to withdraw from the existing agreement in order to force reluctant congressional Democrats to ratify the new one. He then skipped some events and kept a generally lower-than-normal profile. Fellow leaders were surely wondering what the latest round of indictments and revelations in the Mueller investigation means for his administration and its longevity. But the scene around him should be a reminder that whenever Trump goes, something that looks very much like Trumpism will be sharing the global stage for the foreseeable future — and institutions like the G20, built for the very height of globalization, may not be able to contain it.