Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.
The G20 is supposed to be the time and place for multilateral consensus. Instead, it’s become more of a display of the tantrum diplomacy leaders have embraced – whoever screams the loudest or bullies the hardest is permitted to get their way.
Once again, major discord among the world’s superpowers – this time sparked by America’s refusal to endorse the Paris climate accords – calls into question whether such multilateral meetings are becoming an anachronism.
Whether they meet in Japan, Argentina or Papua New Guinea, the drift of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia – and yes, the United States – outside the familiar sandbox of the rules-based international order makes the summit less of a venue for compromise and unity.
That, in turn, has translated into host nations having to settle for watered-down final communiques with little accountability – and even less substance.
United States: Left in the cold
On Saturday, the United States was left in the cold when it was the only G20 member to oppose support of the Paris agreement – ironically as the city which lends its name to the agreement buckled under record-high temperatures.
Under a compromise, the US secured an exemption in an “agree to disagree” framework. The Trump administration, which reportedly failed to get Brazil, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to join it in opposition to the agreement, said the accord would cost too many US jobs. “I’m not looking to put our companies out of business,” President Donald Trump said.
The US going it alone at the G20 brought back memories of the Buenos Aires summit in 2018 where it insisted on a paragraph in the final statement acknowledging that it had rejected the Paris deal.
China: Protecting its interests
Superpower China, not to be outdone in Osaka as a dissident, struck out at rich countries for engaging in protectionism that was “destroying the global trade order.” This theme is a continuation of China’s resistance to any language critical of its alleged behavior to tilt the playing field in favor of its home-grown or state-owned companies.
At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting last November, open disagreements with China prevented, for the first time ever, publication of a final communique because of Beijing’s objection over wording about unfair trade practices. Instead an informal summary of pledges by participants was issued by then-Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill. In the run-up to the conclusion of that summit, Chinese diplomats reportedly stormed the foreign minister’s office in order to secure wording acceptable to Beijing. (China denies the incident ever happened.)
Saudi Arabia: What a difference a year makes
When historians look back at the Osaka summit, they will surely note the astonishing rehabilitation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who, according to the CIA, masterminded the brutal murder and dismemberment of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. (Saudi Arabia denies the Crown Prince had any knowledge of the killing of the journalist).
What a difference a year makes: in Buenos Aires, shortly after Khashoggi’s murder, bin Salman was largely sidelined and relegated in the traditional G20 final photo to the back row. Back then, the only time he seemed to have flashed a smile was when Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a high five.
This year, bin Salman was not only embraced by Trump but also placed front and center in the traditional G20 family photo, possibly because Saudi Arabia will be hosting the next G20 summit in 2020.
Be that as it may, the G20 family, presumably stewards of civility, could have demonstrated its disgust over the murder – especially after the Crown Prince was named by a United Nations report this month as the probable orchestrator of this heinous crime – by withholding the honor of prime placement. They could have even gone a step further by suspending the selection of Saudi Arabia as the venue for the next G20 until bin Salman is cleared. Not to do so condones such atrocious behavior and makes a mockery of the rules-based international order supposedly upheld by the G20.
There is precedent for holding powerful leaders accountable. When Russia invaded and forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014, the then-G8 switched the venue for the leaders of the group of industrialized nations from Sochi to Brussels.
Russia: Putin steps into the limelight
Trump also had a hand in applying a makeover to Putin. While Russia still remains outside G7 membership because of its Crimea annexation, if current trends continue, it won’t be long before Putin will be returning to that exclusive club as well. It was only a year ago that Trump called for Russia to be re-admitted into what used to be the G8.
In Osaka, only outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May gave Putin the diplomatic equivalent of being taken out to the wood shed, by pressing him to bring to justice the suspects in the Salisbury poisoning attack and calling for the release of 24 Ukrainian seamen in Russian custody.
Neither President Xi Jinping nor Putin, bin Salman or Trump, seem to have much regard for the G20 – a forum which represents two-thirds of the world’s population and 85% of global GDP – or for global accords for that matter.
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But it is too early to declare the ascendancy of tantrum diplomacy over multilateralism. If Trump, arguably the most petulant bull in the China shop, leaves office in 2020, the pendulum may swing the other way and his replacement can quickly undo many of his abhorrent actions which have divided the civilized world and the G20.
Perhaps it’s time to recognize these ostentatious international summits for what they have become: another platform for the world’s belligerent leaders to brandish their strongman agendas.