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Struggling for Success at the G20's Buenos Aires Summit

John Kirton, Director, G20 Research Group
November 30, 2018

As G20 leaders approach the end of their first working day at the 2018 G20 summit in Buenos Aires, they were still struggling to produced even a solid success. In the previous weeks, the Argentinian host had prepared three versions of a draft communiqué for his fellow leaders to approve and release at the summit's end. But none had commanded consensus, largely due to the refusal of the United States to go along. The sherpas had worked on the summit site for three days before the summit's start on November 30, and had stayed up all night on November 29-30, to no avail, to try to produce a draft communiqué.

The first G20 leader to arrive was Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was under a cloud for the recent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate general in Turkey several weeks before. With the U.S. intelligence community having just declared that the Crown Prince was responsible for the murder, there was much speculation whether he would have bilateral meeting with U.S. president Donald Trump or other leaders at the G20. As it turned out, this Buenos Aires leg of his international "normalization tour" began with a bilateral meeting with Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, which highlighted the many sectors of the Indian economy where Saudi investment could help. The Crown Prince then had a bilateral with Russian president Vladimir Putin, which featured the two men giving each other an enthusiastic "high five."

The U.S. president was among the last of the leaders to arrive. He had cancelled a bilateral with Putin, to avoid having to confront him over Russia's seizure of three Ukrainian warships near Crimea a few days before. On November 20, G7 foreign ministers, including the United States, issued a harsh statement of condemnation of the Russia move. Trump began his day with an early morning trilateral meeting with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and the retiring Mexico president Enrique Peña Nieto to sign the recently renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), now known in Canada as the Canada-U.S.-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). It could be the only advance in trade liberalization to appear at the Buenos Aries Summit by its end. But even that agreement would depend on how it would be accepted or amended by the U.S. House of Representatives, now controlled by the Democratic Party, when it is installed in January.

Trump also had a bilateral with host president Mauricio Macri of Argentina. They focused on two issues: the collapse of the Venezuelan economy and what the Trump saw as the economic invasion of Latin America's economies by China. At the G20 summit itself, Trump exchanged greeting with the Crown Prince and said he might met him, but no bilateral was scheduled for this trip.

The summit suffered from the unexpectedly late arrival of German chancellor Angela Merkel, G20 veteran and host of the previous G20 summit, at Hamburg in June 2017. A mechanical difficulty with her plane forced her to land in Cologne and take a commercial Spanish flight to Buenos Aries that landed only at the end of the summit's first day.

The G20 summit itself began in the morning with a leaders' retreat, which was scheduled to address several general subjects, including the future of the G20 itself. It continued with a working lunch, devoted to the global economy, the future of work and women's empowerment. The afternoon session focused on international trade, the international financial system and international tax. Yet midway through the afternoon several G20 members suddenly cancelled all their media briefings, and the Argentinian trade minister raised new doubts about whether a consensus communiqué could be produced by summit's end.

By the early afternoon, the first summit achievement had appeared. It was a consensus document on childhood education that the G20 Development Working Group had produced on October 30 and that G20 leaders had now endorsed. But it mobilized no new money for this cause, in sharp contrast to the G7 Charlevoix Summit in June that had assembled almost $4 billion for its initiative education young girls in the developing world. It was an ever sharper contrast with the money mobilized at earlier G20 summits, led by the $1.1 trillion at London on April 1-2, 2009, and $500 billion for the International Monetary Fund's "firewall fund" at Los Cabos, Mexico, in June 2012.

As the leaders headed off to their evening entertainment at the famed Teatro Colòn, they had little to show for their first day's work. And their challenges would mount, as the leaders gathered the next morning for their first working session, devoted to the divisive issue of sustainable development, climate sustainability and climate change.

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