Is the most exciting outcome of the G-20 meeting that opens in Hamburg tomorrow likely to be seen as the face to face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President, Vladimir Putin and a similar meeting between Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping?
The answer is probably yes but it could do one of two other things – it could either further seal US isolationism or open the eyes of the Trump administration to dangerous realities facing the world.
While the G-20 meeting is this year taking place in the commercial heart of Europe, it is with regret that I venture to suggest that attending European politicians will this time be forced to play only on the back foot meaning a more observational role in formal discussions. Such thoughts should not be construed as implying views of say France, Germany and the UK no longer matter but it is one that suggests with Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, facing an election in just a couple of month from now and understandably wary of making commitments that could damage her campaign, with France’s new popular President, Emmanuel Macron still to an extent feeling the diplomatic ropes and in no mood to listen to Trump led rhetoric and Theresa May having been seriously humbled by the UK electorate and now seemingly lacking the degree of stature and power required to make a serious mark in a meetings such as G-20, I fear that I might have to conclude that the world will be in no better condition after the G-20 Summit than when it started.
I am not wishing to be dismissive in any way and value the G-20 just as I do G-8 and other international summits. There is the potential for agreement on some issues such as Russia and the US working more closely together in Syria by creating no-fly zones, safe zones and working more closely to defeat so-called Islamic State. But in order to succeed along those lines Putin will need to give some ground particularly in relation to forcing the Assad regime to stop using chemical weapons. While the postulating about what to do about North Korea may not have been helped by the US Ambassador to the United Nations comments in respect of threatening the possibility of military action, there is scope to agree a tightening of sanctions against North Korea by all countries including China and Russia.
There is an increasing sense that relations between Russia and the US may now have bottomed out but any degree of agreement that emerges between Trump and Putin over the weekend will be intensely scrutinised back home. Meanwhile, Donald Trump is today in Poland, a nation where for once he can be guaranteed a welcome. In Warsaw today Trump will deliver a speech and meet with Eastern European NATO allies. The big question on everyone’s lips – will Trump eat his pride and being on European soil, finally endorse full US backing for Article 5 of the NATO Alliance in respect of collective defence? With an excellent opportunity in Warsaw to eat humble pie, Failure to do so this time will play into the hands of those in Europe that would stupidly push for building collective defence outside of NATO.
Another big issue that Angela Merkel has placed high on the G-20 agenda is Climate Change. She, rightly in my view, recognises that the Paris accord signed up for by 194 countries which includes all G-20 members as far as I am aware, is irreversible. Even so, we are being led to believe that not all those present will hold the line of the Paris climate change accord in Hamburg and Mrs Merkel may well find that it is she that is under pressure on the issue rather than Donald Trump. Whatever, I doubt that on the climate change issue Trump will budge or walk away from his America first approach.
With the worsening situation in respect of North Korea’s actions over the past few days in respect of that countries launching of an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching Alaska likely to feature large albeit beneath the suffice in Hamburg and little progress likely in respect of other difficult geo-political situations I suspect that while made to sound a very important event, G-20 in the end will be rather too quickly seen as a damp squib event despite whatever the probably already half written final communique might say.
If so and given the intensity of other unexpected problems such as the emergence over the past six weeks of a dangerous spat between Arab nations and Qatar and which has clearly been fuelled by the US and now all but backfired in their own face, it would be a pity if the opportunity presented by the G-20 meeting tomorrow winds up being seen as being a wasted opportunity.
North Korea is clearly a very serious issue but if and until the day comes when the North Korean leadership really does challenge its neighbouring democratic neighbour South Korea or indeed, the US directly we need to be clam. In the meantime with Europe moribund politically should there be any improvement in relations between the US, China and Russia should be welcomed.
US endorsement of NATO apart, for me the most serious situation facing those that comprise the bulk of G-20 today is the dangerous situation in Qatar. The US has dug itself into a difficult hole on this and it calls for a huge diplomatic effort by the US, Saudi Arabia and its partners who are blocking Qatar to resolve a situation that is allowed to get out of control could be very serious for all of us.
In the past this is exactly where the UK could have played a vital role in diplomacy in order to fund a way out. Today though it seems that the UK neither has the inclination nor available diplomatic capacity to play a meaningful role. What a sad nation we have allowed ourselves to become.
CHW (London – 6th July 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785