G20: what to watch
The FT's chief foreign commentator, Gideon Rachman, examines the upcoming G20 meeting and looks at the possible role played by Donald Trump.
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald. Produced by Ben Marino. Footage by Getty and Reuters
Donald Trump will not play the central role that American presidents have played ever since the first ever G20 summit, which actually was called just after the financial crisis broke in 2008. And it was called by President George W Bush held in Washington. And even though, in a way, it was a weak moment for the US because the financial crisis happened there, Bush was clearly the convener and the central figure. And ever since, really, American presidents because the power of the economy, the power of the American military, America's institutional role around the world has been sort of first among equals, if you like, in that setting.
But Trump is very different. He's an America-first president who doesn't seem necessarily even that interested in playing the role of global leader, global convener. And he's also, as you know, a deeply controversial figure on every issue you could name, particularly trade. And so, other leaders are stepping forward.
We've got Angela Merkel, the host. And also, for many kind of Western liberals, now the standard bearer of Western liberalism and, indeed, of international trade. And the EU has just signed a big trade deal with Japan, which is a kind of tacit slap back at Trump's protectionism.
And then, of course, there's President Xi Jinping of China. By some measures, China's now the world's largest economy. It's the world's largest exporter. It's the world's largest manufacturer. It's using its economic power much more overtly than it did in the past, so she too is a potential aspirant to global leadership. Even in the political sense because he's spoken out against Trump's rejection of the Paris Climate Accord. He's spoken out in favour of globalisation.
The first G20 summits were probably the most important because they came in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and so it was really important. It was an archetypal case where you needed coordinated global action, and you did get it. I think, actually thinking back, the British were pretty important in 2009 because the next G20 summit after Washington was in London.
Gordon Brown, who was then prime minister, had a particular specialism in international finance, and London's a big financial capital. And it was there really that there was an agreement on a coordinated reflation of the global economy. So G20 summits have mattered since then. And then, later ones at Pittsburgh and so on, there was agreement on cracking down on international tax havens.
And, actually, although there wasn't much attention at the time, quite a lot that's happened since then has flowed from that efforts to create much more transparency in the international banking system. So that people are now still not receiving letters saying, your bank account in Switzerland is now being declared to your local tax authority. That kind of thing has flown from the G20. And that thing there, actually, I think, the French and the Americans were quite important in driving that one.
I think a lot of it is still the atmospherics because Trump's first appearance at the G7, just recently, and at the NATO summit, did not go well. And so everyone was looking for well, who's standing with whom. Does Trump join in? Is he a person apart? Merkel and Macron, the president of France, have bonded very visibly for the cameras, if you like, and will probably do more of that.
I think it will be very interesting to see whether the Chinese president also stands aside or whether he becomes part of the group with Trump to one side. That's going to be important. But then, of course, how is all that symbolism expressed in concluding minutes and in actions taken?
Will the G20, for example, make a statement against protectionism? I suspect probably not because the Americans won't be willing to sign up to it, but they've done that sort of thing in the past. And as I said, the G20 Summits had their origins in an effort to say, that whatever our political differences, we all have a joint interest, in a certain extent, a joint common view on what needs to be done with the world economy. And that common view is crumbling.