As stage exits go Donald Trump’s departure was something of a whimper, the US President leaving the top table of global G20 leaders to play golf.
Trump has been out of kilter with the global mood since he first took office preaching his “America first, fair, not free trade” brand of nationalist isolationist hubris.
Now, as his time in office draws to a close, despite his refusal to publicly accept the reality of the US election results, the combined unspoken message from the world’s leaders is: don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
The virtual summit for leaders of the world’s richest nations is being hosted by Saudi Arabia. Its stated aim is to pull countries together to combat Covid-19, accelerate testing, treatment and vaccines for all, while helping poor nations cope with the pandemic’s economic impact.
Evidence of the shifting attitude toward the outgoing US administration came from the lips of Saudi’s Minister of Investment, Khalid al-Falih. “When the world needed leadership [to combat Covid-19] there was none,” he said. The G20 had stepped up because some nations “turned inwards towards nationalism.” Al-Falih didn’t mention Trump by name. He didn’t need to; his audience understood.
In his G20 opening remarks, Saudi’s King Salman also appeared to rebuke a core Trumpian value: that the World Trade Organization (WTO) has too much power.
King Salman, surrounded on screen by Zoom-style boxes showing leaders including a semi-slouching Trump, said: “We have adopted the Riyadh initiative on the future of the WTO with the aim of making the future multilateral trading system more capable to face any present or future challenges.”
And, in a stunning development, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who is normally at odds with the Saudis, backed the King’s initiative. “Turkey is supporting fair global economic growth and welfare sharing in line with World Trade Organization principles,” he said. “For this, reform process of WTO should progress.”
As leaders spoke of the importance of sharing and working together to accelerate Covid-19 testing, treatments and vaccines for all, the White House struck a starkly different tone. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement: “President Trump highlighted how the United States marshalled every resource at its disposal to respond to the crisis, as well as the unprecedented economic recovery.”
As Trump’s actual speech was delivered behind closed virtual doors, and the White House (unlike many other governments) withheld its leader’s video, it is impossible to know Trump’s tone and inflection or his audience’s response.
Aggressive message on climate change
In Trump’s second speech on Sunday which, unlike the first, was broadcast, his tone was strident and uncompromising, his message aggressive and familiar: anti-global climate change controls.
At the virtual public panel, previous speakers including the Saudi King and leaders of Australia, India and China all praised the 2015 Paris Climate Change Accord as vital to saving the planet, another of the G20’s goals. Trump, on the other hand, declared it a plan to kill America.
“The Paris accord was not designed to save the environment, it was designed to kill the American economy,” he said in a pre-recorded speech from the Diplomatic Room at the White House. “I refuse to surrender millions of American jobs and send trillions of American dollars to the world’s worst polluters and environmental offenders, and that’s what would have happened.”
In a room full of reporters and officials in Riyadh, as Trump’s speech was played on a massive screen almost no one paid attention, unlike when the other leaders spoke.
This week has seen US Covid-19 infections spike alarmingly, with 1 million new cases reported this week. The country now has 12 million in total and unlike most other G20 nations, no slowdown is in sight.
So claims of Covid success, if that’s what Trump was implying, may have been met by polite eye rolls, or even (zoom-muted) laughter, similar to the response he received from world leaders at the 2018 UN General Assembly when he boasted America’s greatness.
The White House says Trump “reaffirmed the importance of the G20 working together for future economic growth and prosperity.” But during the pandemic, he has systematically tried to undo much that the G20 has been working towards, by exiting and defunding the world’s only global health body, the World Health Organization (WHO).
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, who perhaps tried hardest of all international leaders to convince Trump of alternatives to his “America First” policy, used his G20 speech to praise the value of WHO.
“The recommendations of the World Health Organization will be invaluable in ensuring both effective and equitable prioritization [of Covid vaccines],” he said on Saturday.
By the time Macron spoke though, Trump was already at the golf course, his clear message to the G20: I’m done.
It seems that even if Trump can’t accept it, the world is moving on. As the G20 wrapped, his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was expected to land in Saudi for a far shorter visit than was previously envisaged.
In recent months, Trump has been heaping pressure on the Saudis to open relations with Israel in the same way that its smaller neighbor, the UAE, has done. Pompeo’s mission was a secret, but in the days leading up to it, he’d been in both the UAE and Israel, building expectation that a final push to convince the Saudis may be underway.
Pompeo was due to have a brief meeting with Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before heading back to Washington DC. It’s not too late for a deal to be done, but as every lame duck day goes by, power ebbs from this current White House.
Saudi Arabia, the venue for Trump’s first overseas visit as a President, appears to be the hill on which his overseas influence has finally collapsed.
As best we know, no G20 participants told Trump to his virtual face that his time is up, and no one here will write him off until he is finally gone.
But he seemed to make the point himself as the G20 wrapped and the King delivered the final communique while surrounded by leaders in their zoom boxes, Trump was not in his chair – instead an uninterested underling, in an apparent final gesture of contempt.
For many Trump’s exit from the top table of global decision-making will be a welcome break from four stormy years of bullying and lies. The metaphor was completed during the final G20 communique.
The world is ready for President-elect Joe Biden; the bar for success is low, but expectations are high.