When G20 leaders meet in Hamburg in early July they face a problem not on their formal agenda: how to work around Donald Trump. The US president disdains multilateral financial cooperation, is opposed to US participation in the Paris Agreement on climate change , has shown little interest in, knowledge of, or desire to partner with African countries.
These core issues frame the 2017 G20 agenda with a proposed “Compact with Africa” slated as the summit’s big initiative. It’s aims will be to encourage private sector investment, support infrastructure development, and greater economic participation and employment in Africa.
In addition to South Africa, the G20’s only African member, the leaders of Guinea, Kenya and Senegal have been invited as guests.
The US convened the first 2008 G20 Summit in Washington in response to the global financial crisis and has played a leading and constructive role ever since. Such experiments in informal global governance are an anathema to Trump, although he lacks any experience in such matters.
If Africa is to gain the attention in Hamburg the agenda promises, this will have to be without the support and cooperation of the US, at least while Trump is president. But can anything be achieved while this is the case?
If the G20 is to remain relevant in the quest for more inclusive and fair global governance, Africa offers an historic opportunity for collective action, despite US absence. Most urgent is alleviating the famine in East Africa while China, India, and others among the G20 are showing fresh interest in Africa’s long-term peace and development.
The Trump factor
Trump’s first and only exposure to multilateral summit diplomacy was at NATO’s Brussels headquarters on 25 May. Then immediately to a two-day G-7 summit in Sicily. Neither went well. More significant than all the negative media coverage of Trump’s performance, was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s veiled warning that after 70 years, the US under Trump was no longer a credible ally and Europe
must be ready to take our fate into our own hands.
Merkel’s comments were probably intended for a global and American domestic audience as well. The US foreign policy elite and public continue to support close ties to Europe. Cooperation with Africa also has been generally popular in America. It is one area of foreign assistance that has enjoyed enduring bi-partisan support since the early 1990s.
Trump’s antics in Hamburg could detract from the summit and his recalcitrance may complicate setting and slow implementation of the G20 agenda. But, progress on the Africa Compact is still possible with support from the US private and non-governmental sectors. The same goes for climate change and economic cooperation.
How G20 leaders interact with Trump, and comment publicly on the progress or lack of progress in Hamburg will resonate domestically in the US. In deciding what to say publicly, G20 leaders may want to consider recent and escalating US domestic constraints impinging Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s domestic constraints
Trump meets all the definitional criteria of a demagogue. His appeal to popular passions and prejudices rather than reason and facts, secured him a base of support that remains loyal.
He has not broadened his popular appeal, polling favourability ratings around 36%, the lowest ever recorded this early in a first term.
Trump has shown authoritarian traits. And the leaders he appears he will get along with best are those G20 leaders heading authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The US still has the world’s biggest military and economy, but Trump has yet to earn the respect and deference of his G20 peers.
Politicians sometimes lie, but not all to the same degree. The Washington Post’s nonpartisan Fact Checkers recently documented 623 false and misleading claims by Trump in just his first 137 days in office.
Many Americans may be inured to Trump’s off-hand lies, or view it as a cleaver strategy to keep opponents off balance.
Allegations that Trump may now be under investigation by an independent special counsel for obstructing justice in the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, possibly in collusion with the Trump campaign, have put his presidency in even greater peril.
If his own head of intelligence, and other senior officials of his administration, cannot trust him to keep his word, how can foreign leaders? Whatever Trump says at the G20, has to be discounted in light of this, including concurrence with a final joint statement.
Trump’s mendacity points to a much bigger problem. In an era of big data and contested statistical evidence how can opinion be informed by agreed facts to achieve consensus at any political level?
He has ridden rough-shod over decades of research findings regarding the human causes of climate change.
To inform and help frame democratic debate, about such scientifically complicated contested topics as climate, public health, national security, and a raft of other vital policy issues, the public used at least rely on professional journalists to arrive at the best obtainable version of the truth.
This is no longer sufficient. Trump has advanced politically by questioning scientific evidence, those who produce it and dismisses as “fake news” any journalistic reporting he disagrees with. G20 leaders should not be diplomatic in calling attention to this.
And a positive counter-note to Trump’s cavalier claims would be for the G20 leaders to make clear that they believe in evidence based policymaking, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of recommendations.
Cooperation without America
The leaders, individually and together, need to show their commitment to unbiased, honest, and rigorously informed judgements on such issues as the design, priorities, and implementation of their new “Compact with Africa.”
Doing so without US backing adds to the challenge, but is also an opportunity for demonstrating cooperation without America playing a central role. So long as Trump is US president, this is likely to also be popular in most G20 countries.
A just released Pew global survey of public attitudes in 37 countries (including six in Africa - Senegal, South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Ghana) toward the US under Trump shows a 15% drop in positive views of the US (64%-49%) since Barack Obama left office. Confidence in the US presidency under Trump, however, fell a stunning 41%. Only in Russia, and Israel is Trump regarded more favourably than Obama.
Far more important that thwarting Trump, however, will be gaining public support for the “Compact with Africa” and the rest of the Hamburg agenda. Justifying these costly and complex commitments in positive ways will be a tougher political challenge; but one perhaps rendered easier without Trump or his representative claiming a seat at the head of the table.