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A Summit of Solid Success at Hamburg in 2017

John Kirton, Co-director, G20 Research Group
July 8, 2017

The G20 leaders, gathered at Hamburg, Germany, on July 7-8, 2017, produced a summit of very solid success. This success was led by their strong steps forward on the key security issues of countering terrorism and North Korea's new nuclear weapons threat. It continued with enthusiastic advances on women's economic empowerment, led by a new billion dollar plus World Bank Facility for women's entrepreneurship. Progress also came on supporting rising global economic growth, financial regulation and architecture, tax cooperation, and job and skill generation for the emerging digital economy. Also useful were the G20's agreement on global health and its attention to Africa.

However, few credible actions of consequence were agreed on the compelling, urgent, potentially existential threat of climate change. Nor was much real progress made on managing migration and liberalizing trade in ways that would benefit the workers throughout G20 members and beyond. To be sure, the leaders and their personal representatives, after immense effort, did succeed in meeting the German host's procedural goal in producing a collective communiqué agreed to by all. However, its substance fell far short of what was needed and from what most members wanted to meet the key challenges of climate change, migration and trade.

The Hamburg Summit thus made the G20 a centre of global security governance by tackling terrorism and controlling nuclear weapons proliferation, and a centre of social policy governance based on gender equality. But it did little to protect the global climate or the human security of the migrants crossing and dying in the Mediterranean, or to help those perishing from famine and afflicted by infectious and non-communicable diseases around the world.

The proximate cause of Hamburg's strong success on traditional security issues and its much smaller success elsewhere was the unilateral protectionist passions of an inexperienced U.S. president, Donald Trump. Here Trump was arrayed against the equally strong but antithetical convictions of almost all the other more experienced leaders on climate change, migration and trade. Angela Merkel, as the skilled veteran of G20 summit diplomacy, wisely started the summit by securing strong agreements on the security issues where the consensus among all members was wide and deep. But this momentum, and that from the more public presentations on women's economic empowerment were not enough to overcome the deep divisions elsewhere.

The deeper cause of Hamburg's solid security-skewed success was the shock-activated vulnerabilities from the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, and North Korea's launch on June 4 of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the American homeland in Alaska, suggesting North Korea would soon have a missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon to land there. In contrast, the surge in migration and deaths across the Mediterranean and from a famine in Africa and further south killed virtually no citizens from G20 members and remained largely a visible European regional concern.

The multilateral organizations led by the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, were performing well enough on the issues of global economic growth, financial regulation and supervision, international financial architecture, tax and even the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to allow G20 leaders to pass lightly over these issues. The World Trade Organization was less successful in reducing America's bilateral trade imbalances with the world's biggest powers, which so preoccupied Donald Trump, or was it successful in reducing the global overcapacity in steel where China was the largest producer in the world.

The global economic predominance of the G20 members has now grown to 78% of the global economy, as good growth returned to the G7 members of the club. But internal equality continues to increase, as China and India's growth rate of over 6% annually far exceeds that of any G7 member. This trend facilitated Hamburg's advances on many economic and development issues, and its slight steps on Africa, where growth has been poor in South Africa and elsewhere.

Domestic political control was high for host Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, Chinese president Xi Jinping and many other leaders who support open trade, well-managed migration and climate change control. But U.S. president Donald Trump retains enough legislative and judicial control at home and political popularity from his political base to create the great divide that helped prevent real progress here at Hamburg.

Nonetheless, the G20's status as the club at the hub of a global governance network remained strong and helped propel the progress that came. Donald Trump participated in all the summit sessions, including the start of the one on climate change. The opening leaders-only retreat led to the planned advances on terrorism and the more spontaneous ones on North Korea. And all agreed to meet again in Argentina in 2018, Japan in 2019, and Saudi Arabia in 2020.

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John KirtonJohn Kirton is director of the G7 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group, all based at Trinity College at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China's Renmin University. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. His most recent books include 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 of several publications on the G7/8, the G20 and the BRICS published by Newsdesk Media.

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