The Group of 20 meeting starts Friday in Argentina, where summer is just beginning. For the Americans who will attend, that’s just one of many reasons the gathering may seem upside down.
The United States inaugurated the G-20 summits in 2008, at the outset of the Great Recession. President George W. Bush convened and led the first gathering, an expansion of more exclusive G-7 and G-8 conclaves, in order to manage the financial crisis and to reflect a changing global order in which emerging powers were playing a more important role. His role underlined the United States’ first-among-equals position: He was the indispensable leader of the indispensable nation, at the center of the international system.
In Argentina, President Trump will by no means be seen as indispensable. On the contrary, the president will likely be seen by many in the world — and by some in attendance at the event — as a pariah. A new Pew poll shows him with the lowest global public confidence ranking of the major leaders attending — by far. With a 70% “no confidence” rating, he ranks behind Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The scandal-shrouded, self-declared nationalist Trump is devoted not to the post-World War II rules-based world order but to undermining it, upending international deals on climate, trade and arms control. He isn’t a partner in global economic management but rather an unpredictable and reckless financial loose cannon.
On the economics front, instead of world leaders, led by Washington, coming together in Buenos Aires to avoid what appears to be a looming slowdown in the global economy, the G-20 nations will be bracing for more trade tensions between the U.S. and China or the U.S. and Europe. Trump’s sideline meeting with Xi will be closely watched: A further breakdown in their relationship could trigger an escalation in the U.S.-China trade war by the tariff-loving Trump.
Trump was scheduled for a one-on-one with Putin in Buenos Aires. After Russia’s aggression with Ukraine, the president hinted he might cancel, then formally called it off on Thursday — although it is likely the reason for his cancellation had more to do with Michael Cohen’s plea-deal revelations about Trump’s ties to Russia than it did with events in the Sea of Azov.
Will Trump informally chat with Putin? Probably, and not least in large part because the president is likely to feel a chill from other leaders who are traditional U.S. friends.
Trump’s already cold relations with the nations of the Western alliance grew even frostier at the recent World War I memorial ceremonies in France. Trade battles with the EU — and in particular, France and Germany — as well as with Canada, and potentially with Japan, have further contributed to tensions; so too U.S. unwillingness to sanction Saudi Arabia for the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
That brutal assassination will loom large over the events in Argentina. Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who much of the world — and the CIA — believes masterminded Khashoggi’s slaying, is expected to attend. Which nations will snub him and which will not? Trump has made it clear that MBS and Saudi Arabia, and its arms deals with the U.S., have his support. Still, the White House seems to want to have it both ways. On Tuesday, the word was the president would not meet with the Saudi prince; then press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he had not “ruled out any interaction.”
If Trump embraces MBS, the reaction around the world will likely be (as it should be) condemnation. It will be further evidence that the president has effectively changed teams. He will be seen, even more clearly than now, not as a builder of the world order but its enemy, not an advocate for traditional U.S. values but an amoral transactionalist.
The G-20 meeting will be unlike any in the gathering’s short history. Instead of showcasing U.S. international leadership it will compound America’s increasing isolation, and showcase a rogue president on the world stage.