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Awkwardness at the G-20

Could the Populist Influences Over the Summit Be for the Better?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a panel discussion on the second day of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, July 8, 2017. Patrik Stollarz / Reuters

Each year, leaders of the G–20 nations meet to discuss the state of the world economy and self-select into two camps: the liberal democracies, and all the rest. The leader of the former group usually sets the agenda for the meeting, while the head of the latter spoils it, encouraging fellow members to use their collective geopolitical and economic clout to stick it to the arrogant and fading Western order. This year’s meeting in Hamburg on July 7–8 was no different, in a way, but there was a role reversal: Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel rallied the group in a stirring defense of the Paris climate accord as U.S. President Donald Trump holed up in an extended meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. 

Before the summit, observers anticipated awkwardness between Trump and the other heads of state and general uncertainty given the United States’ abdication of global leadership. The shift was all the more stark given that Germany, as this year’s host nation, set the summit’s agenda. Because of that, this year’s “Action Plan”—the key document to come out of any G-20 meeting—emphasized free trade, combating climate change, and welcoming refugees, policies that the Trump administration has vocally opposed. That said, in a nod to the protectionist policies of the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and other countries, the action plan also acknowledged that “legitimate trade defense instruments” were important to keeping international trade on a level playing field. Acknowledging China’s Belt and Road initiative, a massive infrastructure plan to connect East Asia to Africa and Eurasia, the action plan also emphasized the need to manage excess industrial capacity. (Although the Belt and Road initiative is billed as an infrastructure development plan, one of the main problems it is supposed to solve for China is its overproduction of steel.) 

In a rebuke to the closed-border sentiment sweeping liberal democratic nations, the G–20 voiced the need to “support

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