At first glance, the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg may have seemed little more than another expensive and pointless diplomatic exercise. The “Leaders’ Declaration,” a document issued at the end of every meeting to set goals and define the lines of collective action, is a compromise text full of banal niceties. The paragraphs on trade are an illustration: the G-20 members promise to “fight protectionism” and yet also acknowledge “the role of legitimate trade defense instruments,” which is essentially a polite nod to the very measures that countries use for protectionism. Climate change is arguably an even bigger disappointment. An agreement among the Group of 20 has now been replaced by a Group of 19+1, in which the outlier position of the United States is essentially legitimized.
With the summit costing the host country at least 130 million euros, German taxpayers are understandably irate about a meeting that they see as having little to no public benefit. Violent protests marred the meeting on a daily basis, and Hamburg has yet to recover from the upheaval. Damaged properties are now being reconstructed and restored, and insurance claims have run into the millions. Citizens of the city were so shaken by what transpired that they now say they never want to host such a summit again. It is therefore worth asking whether any good has come out of this apparent mess. It might seem easy to answer no. But on closer inspection, the answer is an emphatic yes.
A LANDMARK MOMENT
The challenges facing the G-20 in 2017 are of a different magnitude than those faced by prior summits—perhaps even greater than the financial crisis of 2008, which resulted in upgrading the G-20 from a financial meeting to a summit involving world leaders. Unlike in 2008, when the world was at least united in facing down an international crisis, this year the leaders arrived at the G-20 divided and confronted by severe challenges. They had to deal with a United States distancing itself from global governance, relatively poor
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