G20 Summit’s Main Takeaway: Under Trump, US Will Continue to Go It Alone

Being out of sync with the rest of the world has great impact on the United States’ influence, writes Valdai Club expert Clifford Kupchan. However, just because the US was an outcast at the G20 meeting in Hamburg doesn’t mean it didn’t make inroads of its own. Regarding developments in US-Russian relations, some progress was made.

The outcomes of last week’s G20 meeting may not have been surprising, but they were nonetheless transformative. The main takeaway was that, for as long as Donald Trump is president, the US will continue to go it alone. This was clearest on climate policy, where even some of the world's most fossil-fuel-reliant countries – including Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Russia – all agreed that the Paris agreement’s progress was “irreversible,” in contrast to President Trump’s distaste for the issue. This divide matters not only because of its impact on global efforts to mitigate climate change, but also for the impact that being so out of sync with the rest of the world will have on US influence.

The other area in which the US president’s vehemence could impact global stability was undoubtedly trade. At the behest of the Trump administration, G20 leaders adopted language that put clear bounds and conditions on their support for free trade. This is a cause for real concern as it could cause a protectionist spiral in the mid-term future. Previous US presidents have long charged themselves with defending free trade principles, but this administration views the world through a different paradigm: it believes the global economy has already become protectionist, and the US can either adapt or be swallowed by less principled competitors.

For the Good Things and Against the Bad Things: Reviewing the G20 Summit Oleg Barabanov
From a historical point of view, the G20 Summit in Hamburg is a run-of-the-mill and even unsuccessful event, says Valdai Club Program Director Oleg Barabanov. What caused the most interest was not the summit itself but some of the bilateral or multilateral meetings on the sidelines, including the first Putin-Trump meeting.

All that said, one should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that last week’s G20 meeting was only about “the US versus the rest”. While it was certainly true that the US stood on the sidelines of global cooperation, genuine and profound collaboration among the G20’s other participants remains to be found. Europe and China are getting closer, but only on select issues. The variable geometry between Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing also remains imperfect and poorly defined. And even where there are handshakes and kind words, real results are far from guaranteed among the world’s emerging powers.

Similarly, just because the US was an outcast at the meeting doesn’t mean it didn’t make inroads of its own. Regarding developments in US-Russian relations at the G20, some progress was made. The sides agreed, along with Jordan, to underwrite a ceasefire in parts of southwest Syria. While it is unclear if the truce will hold, the step signifies a degree of progress in US-Russian coordination on a critical issue. Another noteworthy development was the positive rapport between the Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. However, their meeting does not justify euphoria, as difficult issues remain in US-Russian relations. Syria, Ukraine, NATO policy, US sanctions, and other issues will still cause tension. So too will the matter of alleged Russian interference in the last US election. Finally, this issue and ongoing investigations relating to it will limit Trump's ability to improve relations with Russia.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.