G20 Summit

At odds with the rest

Print edition : August 04, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a panel session at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8. Photo: Michael Kappeler/AP

In Krasinski Square in Warsaw, Poland, with the monument commemorating the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in the background, Trump gave a fiery speech about defending the West. Photo: Alik Keplicz/AP

Riot police standing in front of protesters on July 6 during the “Welcome to Hell” demonstrations against the G20 summit. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

Donald Trump said that the West “will never be broken”, but it is evident after the G20 meeting that the West, or at least the G20, is in deep disarray and has not been able to forge a common agenda.

UNITED STATES PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP went to Poland before he arrived in Hamburg (Germany) for the G20 meeting. In Poland, Trump gave a fiery speech about defending the West. “The fundamental question of our time,” Trump said, “is whether the West has the will to survive.” Then Trump elaborated on this theme: “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilisation in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” Trump’s most direct statement came in his punch line: “The West will never be broken.”

So much history lay within this speech. It was Trump’s clearest statement of his views. He sees himself as the defender of “the West” and of its “civilisation” and “values”. Other leaders, he suggests, are too weak. They are unwilling to stand for “the West” against its enemies. Trump did not specify the nature of the enemies. He did not directly say against whom he is defending the West. But, given his other statements, it seems clear that his enemies are Islam and liberalism.

The key phrase in his speech was “the will to survive”. It alludes to the language of Nazism, which often spoke of the importance of the “will” and the necessity to struggle to “survive” against Judaism, liberalism and communism. Trump’s speech echoed the book The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy written by the American scholar Lothrop Stoddard in 1920. Racial paranoia runs from Stoddard’s popular book of 1920 to Trump’s awkward speeches of the present. The fear of the “rising tide of colour” and of the end of “white world supremacy” absorbs Trump as much as it did Stoddard, although the American President is more shy in his comments. He does not openly talk of race. Everything is in code. It is easier that way. But Trump’s code is thin. It is obvious that he is obsessed about race and religion, that he worries about darker bodies that want to enter the U.S. either to take away jobs or to kill others. It is a bleak picture of humanity, ceaseless in struggle on racial lines. Little wonder that the other leaders of the G20 are embarrassed by Trump. He openly speaks in the language of race, whereas they prefer innuendo. Few of these leaders come out and defend a more robust liberal view of the world against Trump’s racist paranoia. They prefer to ignore him, which is why he spent large parts of the G20 meeting sitting by himself or roaming around the conference table haplessly.


For the past several G20 meetings, unity has been hard to forge. After all, tensions between the West and Russia have detained the members. They have not been able to forge a common agenda. Since its ninth summit in Australia in 2014, the G20 has been a hesitant body. The slow end of U.S. dominance and the emergence of new powers have confounded the group. No world leader has emerged to set an agenda. The U.S. has slowly shrunk its commitments to world affairs as the other powers have not been able to drive a project that is acceptable to the majority of the membership. It was serendipitous that Germany was the host this year, with Chancellor Angela Merkel at the helm. She has positioned herself as the new leader of the West. Although with the U.S. still the main military power and still an enormously important economic power, the shift of the mantle from the U.S. President to the German Chancellor is more media speculation than reality. Without new leadership, the G20 appeared in a shambles. With the U.S. against the Paris climate accord, the 19 other powers sought to put forward their own agenda. But even here, the confidence of the 19 to act on their own was minimal. They suggested that the Paris process was “irreversible” and that the pledges to cut emissions would be met. But this is not entirely the case in the final document the G20 produced.

A concession was made to the U.S. The G20 document says: “The United States of America states it will endeavour to work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently.” There is no condemnation of U.S. policy with energy and towards climate change. No statement of disapproval that so many of Trump’s Cabinet members do not even believe in climate change. Part of the hesitancy might come from the fact that many of the other G20 countries are also complicit in the maintenance and expansion of the carbon order. A new report from Oil Change International shows that many of the other G20 countries—such as Canada, Italy, Germany, France, South Korea and Japan—spend over $72 billion a year of public money to subsidise oil, gas and coal production. Given their own complicity in the carbon order, these countries could not take a firm stand against the U.S.

No one stood up at the G20 and rebuked Trump for his racist paranoia. Not one of the leaders felt comfortable articulating a more liberal world order, with refugee protection and minority protection fundamental to it. There was no defender of the United Nations or anyone willing to speak about the importance of the U.N.’s recent vote against nuclear weapons. None of the leaders would stand up and condemn the arms sales that saturate the world order, eating into precious public funds and driving wars that dislocate people. Dullness defined the G20, where business deals took centre stage, with world leaders more interested in being seen as important than as leaders.

Welcome to hell

Angela Merkel hoped to show Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Germany had a liberal attitude to dissent. Over 100,000 protesters gathered in Hamburg. They came to stand against austerity and war, against the mayhem produced by the leadership of the G20. “G20: Welcome to Hell”, said the protesters. A hundred of them painted their bodies in silver and walked through the streets as zombies. One poster read: “ Krieg Beginnt Hier ” (War Starts Here). It bore the attitude of the protesters. They did not come to march silently. They came to create a ruckus. This is what Angela Merkel did not understand. Her people are angry. They did not want the G20 to leave without feeling the anger of the people. When the protests became a riot, Angela Merkel sent her crack riot police to stop the demonstrations. Tear gas and water cannons, both instruments familiar to the other leaders of the G20, took hold. Sneers against Turkey and Russia came off as insincere. Dissent was quelled in Hamburg. It meant little that Angela Merkel distinguished between peaceful protests and violent ones. This distinction is familiar to Turkey’s Erdogan. A long march from Ankara had just entered Istanbul. Erdogan wants to paint this as the work of terrorists. A crackdown is on the horizon. He will likely refer to Angela Merkel’s violence in Hamburg as an example.

From the streets of Hamburg, the Australian journalist Chris Uhlmann reported that Trump seemed an “uneasy, lonely, awkward figure” at the G20 meeting. He said that Trump “has no desire and no capacity to lead the world” and that Trump “has pressed fast forward on the decline of the United States as a global leader”. The West, Trump said in Poland, “will never be broken”. But if the evidence from Hamburg is to be believed, the West, or at least the G20, is in deep disarray. Clarity is not available. No combined project is visible.

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