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Trump and the Riyadh Summit

John Kirton, G20 Research Group
November 21, 2020

Did Donald Trump's last G20 summit as U.S. president for the next four years continue its perfect record of bringing out the best in him, since he first appeared at Angela Merkel's highly successful G20 Hamburg Summit in July 2017? By the end of the first day, initial indications are that may well have, when full account is taken of the unprecedented disruptions and damage he is causing at home and elsewhere abroad.

To be sure, it must be acknowledged that this is a relative judgement, and acquires any accuracy from a very low base, starting with his performance at G7 summits and at the NATO summits where he appeared, rather than the other ones where he sent Vice President Mike Pence in his place. It must also be said that it is based on very preliminary reports about his behaviour on the first day, and could well change as more evidence arrives and as he acts as the rest of the summit unfolds, where he is scheduled to participate on the second day.

But at present, the key facts are the following.

First, Trump showed up to participate, if only briefly, and did so from the summit's start. Many had assumed or judged that he would not attend at all, preferring to spend this weekend exclusively tweeting, playing golf and devising ever more unprecedented ways to try to retroactively win the presidential election he lost two and a half weeks earlier. He thus maintained his own perfect attendance record, and that of all U.S. presidents, at the 16 G20 summits so far – a record of which all the leaders of democratic Australia and neighbouring Mexico cannot boast.

Second, he has so far caused no known disruptions to the Riyadh Summit's important work. He does not appear to have threatened or acted to withdraw the United States from the summit's entire communiqué, as he did at the 2018 G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, immediately after he left. Nor has he withdrawn from any new multilateral organizations or agreements. Nor has he attacked the World Health Organization, preferring to ignore it instead. It could be a good thing that he appears to have skipped the G20's sideline event on pandemic preparedness, which could have tempted him to resume his attacks, preferring to enhance his own health by going golfing.

Donald Trump's four reported contributions thus far must be assessed with due allowance for his highly distinctive and now well-known speaking style. Many of his statements allow for multiple interpretations. Others lack specific factual accuracy, but remind his multiple audiences of contextual realities, of many different sorts. One is even reminded of a comment by a previous U.S. political figure that "I didn't say that – it was something I read in a speech." In this case it might be good if Trump had been reading a speech written by others, rather than speaking from his heart.

First, his headline comment, as quoted in the highly reliable Guardian, backed by an audio recording obtained by the Observer, was Trump's statement to fellow G20 leaders that "It's been a great honour to work with you, and I look forward to working with you again for a long time." He was looking forward to a "tremendous decade" of doing so. He thus began by acknowledging that all his G20 colleagues were his equals and that he was privileged, indeed "honoured," to be allowed to internationally cooperate with them. He might have meant that he would, as he could possibly, return as president in 2024, and them win two four-year terms, ending more than a decade from now. In the meantime he would take the calls from and give his advice to those fellow G20 leaders who might seek and value it, with the U.S. southern neighbour of Mexico and northwest neighbour of Russia springing to mind. In the meantime, there is a precedent elsewhere for former leaders forming a de facto engagement group – the "G20 elders" it could be called.

Second, President Trump is reported to have boasted about the U.S. economy. It was indeed booming before being hit by a pandemic he did not cause. While it was working best for the one percent at the top, it was still working for many, if not all, of those below.

Third, he similarly is said to have boasted about the U.S. military. Here he is on safer ground. He has done much to build it up, well beyond two percent of U.S. gross domestic product, while almost all his G20 colleagues who are also NATO members lag far behind. They largely applaud America's growing military strength, as the threats from non-democratic rivals rise. Moreover, these new U.S. military capabilities can now be put to good use, helping get the COVID-19 vaccines to everyone who needs and wants it, not only in the United States, but in much of the world outside.

Finally, President Trump is reported to have claimed credit for his Operation Warp Speed creating the two leading vaccines that will help the United States and others "turn the corner" on COVID-19, to repeat his recent favourite phrase. While the causal chain is complex and largely driven by forces from elsewhere, it is contextually true that the two private sector firms at the head of the pack, Pfizer and Moderna, are headquartered in the United States, and that America's superior capabilities in global distribution will be needed to get them into everyone's arms around the world. These arms shots, not moonshots or arms sales, are what the world most needs from America now. But it is also true that Pfizer was first because it partnered with a firm in Angela Merkel's Germany, and one started by two immigrants her country had welcomed from Turkey. Proof again that immigrants really help the countries that take them in.

President Trump's initial contribution appears to be propelled neither by the shock-activated vulnerability of the COVID-19 crisis and its consequences, nor by the need to reform rather than withdraw from and defund the key multilateral organizations his country cannot control, led by the World Health Organization, World Trade Organization and the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Nor does it flow from a recognition of the reality of relative U.S. economic and other dimensions of decline, facts he does not accept.

Rather, it stems from the president's domestic political need to bolster his highly precarious political position at home, during his final 60 days in office, due to the presidential election he has just lost, with six million Americans preferring his rival to him.

It may flow even more from his personal, psychological need to be the centre of attention, in this case globally, to help his devotees back home and around the world belief that he won so much, has just won again, and will stay in office to keep winning or that he will soon be back to win again.

It could stem from a desire to come through for King Salman, a leader whose political position and policies Trump often seems to admire as a model for himself and the world and to whom he first paid his first foreign visit as president of the United States. But for Donald Trump, it seems just to be all about him, and him alone, in both senses of that phrase.

Whatever the causes, President Trump's initial contribution to the G20's Riyadh Summit raises the question of whether he will host his own long overdue and repeatedly delayed G7 summit, as he is supposed to do before his G7 presidency expires at midnight on December 31 this year. It also raises the further question of when and where he would host it and which of his G7 colleagues – all G20 ones too – would attend. The answer could depend in part on what he and they do on the Riyadh Summit's second day.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G20 Research Group, G7 Research Group and Global Health Diplomacy Program and co-director of the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Polic at the University of Toronto. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include Accountability for Effectiveness in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Routledge 2018), China's G20 Leadership (Routledge, 2016), G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015), and Moving Health Sovereignty in Africa: Disease, Govenance, Climate Change, co-edted with Andrew F. Cooper, Franklyn Lisk and Hany Besada (Ashgate, 2014). Kirton is also co-editor with Madeline Koch of several publications on the G20, the G7 and global health governance, including G20 Saudi Arabia: The 2020 Riyadh Summit (available soon from the Global Governance Project!) and G7 France: The 2019 Biarritz Summit, and, with the support of the World Health Organization, Health: A Political Choice — Act Now, Together, published by GT Media and the Global Governance Project.