The final communique from the G20 summit that concluded in Osaka, Japan this weekend gives almost no hint of the drama that actually unfolded there. In the communique, the rich-country leaders say they will “strive to realize a free, fair, nondiscriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open.” It’s an economic conference, after all, and overcoming political hurdles to issue some kind of joint statement is the name of the game. This year’s text was particularly hard to agree on, with the U.S. serving as a key obstacle and forcing some notable changes.
Absent is any language denouncing trade protectionism: a concession to U.S. President Donald Trump that was also made at last year’s summit in Buenos Aires. On climate change, the 19 other member states agreed to disagree with the U.S. after Trump lobbied for weakening or omitting that language. In the end, the communique had the signatories to the Paris agreement reaffirming their commitment to its implementation while giving a solicitous nod to the U.S.’s alternative approach, which it described very diplomatically as a “balanced approach to energy and environment.”
These controversies over the wording of the communique matter, in part because they illustrate how Trump has shifted the U.S. position in opposition to the consensus of liberal democracies, but they’re hardly the most consequential of the president’s actions at and around the G20. In his statements and meetings on the sidelines of the summit, he gave explicit cover and support to authoritarian leaders, made concessions to adversaries, and threatened to tear up decades-old agreements with longstanding allies.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set the tone for the weekend in an interview with the Financial Times on the eve of the summit in which he declared that “the liberal idea has become obsolete” because Western elites are at odds with their constituents on issues like immigration and multiculturalism. He doubled down on this broadside in remarks after the summit concluded on Saturday, saying liberalism “has started eating itself” and disenchantment with liberal ideals was the reason why Western democracies have found themselves electing leaders like Trump.
Other Western leaders denounced these comments, including even the Trump-like Boris Johnson, who will likely be the next prime minister of the U.K. Trump, on the other hand, appreciated Putin’s bromide against “Western-style liberalism,” ostensibly misunderstanding it as a reference to California Democrats. It’s fun to laugh when Trump makes a boneheaded mistake like that, but Putin is correct that right-wing populism is on the rise around the world because liberalism is failing to contain multiple social crises, and Trump’s deeper alignment with Putin’s worldview is far more frightening than his misunderstanding of it is funny.
The two presidents met at the G20, of course, and their public appearance before the closed-door meeting comprised another series of gifts from Trump to his Russian counterpart. Rather than calling Putin out for Russia’s well-documented efforts to manipulate U.S. elections, he joked about it. He also praised Putin for having a better handle on “fake news” in his country than Trump does here (meaning the ability to take over media outlets and arrest, torture, and murder dissident journalists). Later, Trump said he had a “tremendous discussion” with Putin and called for more trade between the U.S. and Russia, even though his administration has tightened sanctions on that country. If Trump had his way — that is, if the eggheads and deep-state apparatchiks in Washington didn’t keep blocking him — those sanctions would be gone and they’d be breaking ground on Trump Tower Chelyabinsk already.
A Pentagon report was released to the public this weekend expressing concern that Russia was beating the U.S. at cultivating influence and swaying public opinion around the world. The study laments the lack of a coordinated counter-message from the U.S., which of course is impossible to achieve when the president is regularly, enthusiastically praising Russia and wishing he could more closely emulate Putin’s approach to governing.
Trump also came to the defense of his friend Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince whom the C.I.A. and the U.N. blame for ordering the grisly murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year. In a friendly photo-op with the prince, Trump described Saudi Arabia as “a good purchaser of American products” and ignored questions from the press about Khashoggi’s murder. At a press conference later, Trump responded to those questions by accepting at face value Saudi Arabia’s claim to be honestly prosecuting those responsible for the assassination and claiming that nobody has directly pointed the finger at prince Mohammed, which is false.
One highlight of the G20 were sideline talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping regarding our escalating trade war, in which the two leaders agreed to restart negotiations. As a result of these talks, Trump said he was holding off on additional tariffs on Chinese imports for now and would ease restrictions on the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei buying technology from the U.S. In exchange, China agrees to buy large quantities of U.S. agricultural produce it may or may not need. “We’re going to give them lists of things we would like them to buy,” Trump said; presumably, that list consists mainly of corn and soybeans from swing states Trump needs to win next year.
It would be hypocritical to criticize Trump for backing down in a fight he shouldn’t have picked in the first place, but taking a tougher line on China is a centerpiece of Trump’s trade policy platform, so this shift to a more conciliatory posture undercuts the credibility of his position and suggests his strategy isn’t working. Perhaps he’s feeling the need to produce some kind of result before campaign season; if so, that’s a nice bit of leverage for Xi, who does not have to worry about elections.
Another authoritarian beneficiary of Trump’s largesse this weekend was North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who responded favorably to a tweeted invitation from the president to shake hands in the Korean Demilitarized Zone while Trump was in the neighborhood. That meeting, which took place early Sunday morning, made Trump the first U.S. president to set foot on North Korean soil and gave Kim the photo opportunity of a lifetime. The U.S. and North Korea will now reopen stalled talks over the latter’s nuclear program, though as with China, those talks might not go anywhere. Characteristically, Trump appears to believe that he can close a complicated deal through personal affinity and charisma alone. The sudden proposal to meet in the DMZ wasn’t the product of lengthy planning and preparation, nor did it follow any standard diplomatic protocols; Trump is conducting diplomacy on his own track here. What message does this send Kim, though, if not that he can keep winning historic propaganda victories by playing hot-and-cold with his sentimental U.S. counterpart?
When Trump wasn’t posing for smiling snapshots with this all-star cast of brutal dictators, he was taking potshots at real U.S. allies like Europe and Japan. Prior to the summit, he said Europe “treats us worse than China” and repeated his talking point about NATO members not paying their fair share of costs, while also somehow claiming credit for the fact that NATO still exists at all. His talks with European leaders at the G20 were friendly enough, but seemed to skirt around the heaviest issues weighing on the American-European alliance.
On Saturday, he dropped another pointless bombshell, saying he had told Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that the post-World War II security treaty between the U.S. and Japan would need to be rewritten because it was unfair to the U.S. in that it commits the U.S. to defend Japan but not vice-versa. (The New York Times’ Gary Bass explains why this is absurd, even by Trump’s standards). Withdrawing from the pact would mean pulling large numbers of U.S. forces out of Asia at an extremely bad time, which means it’s a total nonstarter with the Pentagon and has little to no chance of actually happening. All Trump accomplishes by picking this fight is insulting a longstanding ally and signaling to China and North Korea that this security alliance is negotiable.
To be sure, Trump isn’t the only reason why authoritarianism is on the rise in rich and middle-income countries. Putin’s dark assessment that Western liberalism has failed and will soon fade from this earth has an element of truth to it, and Trump is much more a consequence than a cause of that failure. Yet it is impossible to feel good about the future of liberal democracy around the world when the president of the United States consistently praises and accommodates its enemies, such that the U.S. is no longer seen as reliably on the side of the angels.
The G20 was just another example of this historic realignment. Its consequences remain to be seen.