Global power summit sans US leadership | Sunday Observer

Global power summit sans US leadership

G-20 leaders posed in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday. President Emmanuel Macron of France was with President Trump at left.   Pic: The New York Times
G-20 leaders posed in Hamburg, Germany, on Friday. President Emmanuel Macron of France was with President Trump at left. Pic: The New York Times

The world’s top twenty economic powers, the ‘G20’, met in Hamburg, Germany, last week with all usual trappings and dynamics – ceremony, negotiations and even violent street protests – except one: the absence of American leadership, for the first time since World War 2 defined the current global order.

Meanwhile, both North Korea as well as the US test fired powerful missiles in the Korean Peninsula in one of the most heated (but non-lethal) exchanges since the Korean War, while Qatar’s defiance has momentarily stalled the hostile campaign against it by Saudi Arabia and its small group of allied Arab states. And, anti Islamic State forces continue to inch forward in Mosul and Raqqa.

In the ancient entrepot of Hamburg, where Germany hosted the G20 summit last week, the US delegation, headed by President Donald Trump, did draw much attention. But, unlike in earlier times, the word’s leaders were not eagerly waiting to hear the words of the leader of what is still the world’s most powerful country.


There was no expectation of authoritative or insightful pronouncements by the American leader that would help move global processes forward. Rather, ahead of the summit, some of the most powerful states’ leaders – the UK’s Premier Theresa May and France’s President Immanuel Macron among them - were expressing their criticisms of the US President and their intention to lecture him on green-house gases, among other things.

The Group of Twenty, according to Wikipedia, “is an international forum for the governments and central bank governors” – most of them belonging to the twenty biggest economies. Founded in 1999, the G20 aims to discuss policy issues pertaining to the promotion of international financial stability. It seeks to address issues that go beyond the responsibilities of any one organization. While several small states and intellectuals have criticised the elitist nature of this grouping, it is, no doubt, influential over world trends and provides yet another forum for clashing powers to interact and negotiate.

The lack of a prominent and influential role by the incumbent leader of US at the G20, then, is no better evidence of the decline of the US on the world stage.

True, American news media was full of what Trump should or should not be doing at the G20 summit. Political critics were challenging Trump to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin over Russia’s alleged cyber strikes and manipulation of voting in the US presidential election last year. Trump is under immense scrutiny by his own national legislature - both chambers of the US Congress – as to whether his Campaign staff colluded with the Russians to get the cyber-attackers to tilt the election in Trump’s favour.

But the Republican Party leadership was seeking bigger things than just managing Donald Trump’s proclivities. They wanted to ensure that, even as the US trod a new, more selfishly individualist, path on the world stage, America’s long-time friends and allies would be reassured that their relationships were broadly unchanged.

Hence, when President Trump first went to Poland on his way to the G20 Summit, that bilateral visit was billed as an act of solidarity with a weak NATO member situated at the very doorstep of Russia. Trump’s speech in Poland was hailed as a watershed for his presidency’s foreign strategy because, at long last, the US President firmly stated his country’s commitment to the NATO’s policy of defending any single member state under attack.

President Trump’s call to Russia to end what he called its ‘destabilising activities’ against states was also hailed in the US media – and the Republican leaders – as a clear-cut challenge to Moscow. But it did not go far enough for the Democratic Party and other critics who wanted him to explicitly and publicly condemn Russia for its, yet unproven, cyber attack on the American electoral system.


While Trump was cheered wildly at a public rally in Poland and he won high praise from Poland’s political leaders – their reputation for authoritarianism is not as bad as the Rajapaksas – the American leader’s reception in Hamburg was the opposite. Beset by scores of thousands of rampaging anti-capitalist protestors, Hamburg was in lockdown. Trump was spirited by helicopter into the high security exclusive zone in the city centre reserved for the Summit and he became part of the multiple interactions between the 20 plus big power leaders ranging from Japan’s Abe to Germany’s Angela Merkel to Russia’s Putin to South Africa’s Zuma, to France’s charismatic Macron.

Melania Trump was unable to attend special events for the spouses of world leaders due to the protests.

Trump did meet President Putin for two hours on the sidelines of the G20 but, much to the disappointment of the US news media, there was no confrontation. Predictably, businessman Trump adopted a smooth approach and Putin was certainly happy to go along.

Trump was seemingly happy to accept Putin’s formal denial of any cyberwarfare at face value. But being no more than a family entrepreneur, Trump has no idea of the high stakes in geo-politics, or of the complexity and lengthy time scale of inter-state dynamics.

While America may want Trump to raise national security issues with a transgressor, traditionally, her European allies would have wanted America to face up to Russia on its aggressive behaviour on the eastern borders of NATO and EU. But, not so, with Trump.

There was no anticipation whatsoever among Europe’s leaders that their one-time military backer, the US, would raise issues such as Ukraine and Crimea with Putin. Having already heard Trump’s “America First” line, his constant dismissal of NATO, and his profound unilateralism in withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, no European leader was expecting the current US president to take the lead on global issues other than those that directly affect the US.

That is the measure of the decline of the US’ global role.

Meanwhile, America’s firm warnings to Pyongyang against more missile tests seemed to have only spurred the North Korean dictatorship to test more! On July 4th, America’s independence day, North Korea test launched its heaviest ever rocket, one that ostensibly can reach the nearest territory of the US, namely Alaska.

The rocket travelled only as far as the Sea of Japan – less than 1,000 km – but it has been described as a ‘ballistic missile’ with a range capability of an ‘inter-continental ballistic missile’ (ICBM). The US, of course, has nearly 2,000 ICBMs each carrying multiple nuclear war heads and tens of thousands of medium range nuclear-tipped missiles to be launched from naval and air force units.

Indeed, in response, the US forces based in South Korea (for the past seventy years) also test fired some of their missiles.

At the same time, the State Department insisted that at present Washington was persisting with diplomatic measures with regard to North Korea.

While Donald Trump has little idea of governance and none at all of geo-politics, the hawks in the Republican Party seem to think that they are yet living in the Cold War when the US was one of only two superpowers and there were no other powers on the horizon.

Today, the horizons are crowded, and if the Earth is to remain safe in every sense of the word, then power can no longer be solely exercised through the barrel of a gun.