As it turned out, the contrast at this year's G20 conference of the world's most significant nations was as stark as possible. Following the news of President George H.W. Bush's death, the difference between the late president's leadership as a unifier, whose legacy was to preside over America's graceful exit from the Cold War, and a deeply divisive President Donald Trump, who has the potential of plunging the United States into a new cold war with the China of Xi Jinping, was on full display.
A severely wounded Trump managed to avert the most dire of consequences -- at least for the moment -- but, wings clipped, found his two days of summitry most noted for meetings that were avoided or canceled.
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In fact, every one of Trump's potential landmines was there -- his autocratic friends, Russia's Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman, China's Xi; and democratic frenemies, Canada's Justin Trudeau, Germany's Angela Merkel, France's Emmanuel Macron and Britain's Theresa May.
In the end, however, there was only one encounter that truly mattered -- the dinner meeting between Trump and Xi. Fortunately, Trump found it prudent to step back from the very edge of an abyss. Each leader is clearly enamored by what they see as the other's supreme power over his nation and world events. The one substantive difference is that Xi has no term limits, while Trump has two, or at most six years remaining in his tenure.
And their minimal progress averted an immediate crisis. Trump and Xi agreed to allow their people to talk, postponing for three months the January 1 deadline of crippling new American tariffs, and setting up the stock market for at least a temporary relief rally Monday morning.
At most of these G20 meetings, it is less the vast plenary sessions that set the tone and provide the headlines than the one-on-one conferences or even the brief "pull-aside" conversations between the assembled leaders, many with long dockets of grievances or issues to be explored.
But this year, most of these meetings were either removed or downsized at the last minute, leaving Trump curiously muted -- perhaps quite astute moves by advisers anxious to avoid unfortunate headlines or worse from a personality rarely able to adapt to any diplomatic niceties. Of course, for some there is also the feeling that spending too much time in close proximity to or extended conversation with Trump would be the diplomatic equivalent of playing with a live hand grenade. One never knows when the pin's been pulled.
Still, it's a pretty sad state of affairs when the smartest move Trump could make was canceling meetings -- with Putin, for instance, when a direct, face-to-face confrontation might even have helped put a brake on Russian expansionism in the Black Sea and reclaiming of power in eastern Ukraine.
Petulance is hardly a savory sauce to spice any international gathering. While Trump's foul moods all too often seem to have set the table at international gatherings, most recently last month at the celebration of Veteran's Day in Paris, this time he was scarcely visible to allow any dark clouds to gather. Apart from the suspension of the cold war with China, there was little sense that the Trumpian agenda of America First and rest of the world be damned had changed one iota. Rather, the rest of the world seems simply to have accepted the new normal from its onetime leader and moved on.
Such an attitude toward Trump seemed to be how Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened his conversation with the American president on the first day of the G20: "I want to congratulate you on your historic victory in the midterm election in the United States." This set me to wondering whether Abe had been reading any reports at all from the American elections, or had simply learned a vital lesson of dealing with his self-referential interlocutor.
In the end, while the United States refused to sign the G7 closing communique in June, this year the other G20 signatories simply wrote in American exceptionalism to the document, reflecting the view of much of the western world -- with the exception of the United States.
This allowed all sides to claim at least a modicum of success. On trade, the communique suggested it was a matter not of free trade but fair trade, failing to speak out on protectionism, while bowing to the American desire to reform the World Trade Organization, which most countries recognize could use some touching up, while not scrapping it entirely.
Equally, it allowed Trump a final swipe at a pet peeve on his way home, telling reporters on Air Force One that he planned to begin the mechanism to pull out of NAFTA "shortly," giving the newly Democratic House and GOP-led Senate six months to approve his revised pact he signed in Buenos Aires.
"Today is a great day for the United States," a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing at the end of the G20. "Across the board, it was really a resounding success." And the official went on to explain that there was other language the administration liked on everything from transparent trade financing to women's empowerment, adding that the G20 even allowed the US to explain "why we are withdrawing from the job-killing Paris Agreement" on climate change -- while every other G20 nation committed to reinforcing and embracing its provisions.
In short, whatever victory the Trump administration might claim seemed to be for American exceptionalism rather than leadership. Quite a pyrrhic victory in the end -- and one the United States must find some way of overcoming if it is ever to assume any leadership role again.
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