A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

American Requiem

At Hamburg’s G20 summit Trump’s noisy tweets were surpassed by China’s quiet diplomacy.
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For the first time, full agreement was not possible at a G20 summit. After their Hamburg meeting, the leaders issued dissenting positions in their final communiqué. Europe may be moving toward a “certain normality” dealing with the Trump administration, but there’s a clear winner.

© REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool

As a journalist accredited to cover last weekend’s G20 meeting in Hamburg, I felt a bit like Berlin’s new panda bears: an exotic, encaged, and expensive guest.

For those of you more familiar with world affairs than animal affairs, Meng Meng and Jiao Qing are two new bears on long-term loan to the German capital. It’s a new twist on Chinese panda diplomacy that stretches back to the days of US President Richard Nixon. Berlin zoo built a new €10 million pagoda, will feed the bears a small fortune in bamboo shoots daily and has promised Beijing €1 million a year in rent.

Last week President Xi Jinping and Chancellor Angela Merkel officially opened the enclosure and, as Beijing sees it, a new chapter in China’s efforts to fill a place in global leadership vacated by the Trump administration.

The following days I was one of the thousands of journalists in another expensive enclosure, this time in Hamburg. Germany’s outward-looking harbor city was built on trade and was thus, we heard, an ideal host city given competing views on whether globalization tide lifts all boats.

For the G20 summit, Hamburg’s trade fair was transformed into a high-security conference area and adjoining panda, sorry, press pen. Behind two – or was it three? – security checks, the press area was in three parts: a functional working area, a dining area, and a “chill-out” lounge area that echoed the aesthetics of countless tech startups: exposed wood, random cushions, table football, and a massive stuffed lobster.

Given the comfort of our enclosure, and the excellent catering, it was easy to forget why we were there at all. At an estimated, conservative cost of €130 million, Chancellor Merkel was hosting us – and the presidents and prime ministers from the United States, China, France, India, Indonesia, Australia, and more. The leaders of two thirds of the world’s population held sessions to discuss issues of global importance: climate change, trade, and security.

Negotiation Marathon

Behind the scenes the real G20 played out. After months of preparation, it boiled down to a 48-hour all-night negotiation marathon. In the end, full agreement was not possible and the G20, for the first time, issued dissenting positions in its final communiqué.

The climate section reflected the Trump position that economic growth and energy security take priority over reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The other delegations agreed to “take note” of last month’s US withdrawal from the Paris agreement. They described the climate deal as “irreversible” and reiterated their determination to move “swiftly” to full implementation.

On trade, the other key issue, the Trump delegation agreed with others on the importance of “reciprocal and mutually advantageous trade and investment frameworks” and a need to “fight protectionism”. But, in a concession to the US, the final statement recognized the role of “legitimate trade instruments” and demanded “concrete” solutions by November from a G20 sub-body on what to do about a surplus of steel on world markets.

Seven months after the “America First” president took office, Donald Trump held a closely watched meeting – his first – with Russian president Vladimir Putin, then skipped out of town without holding a press conference. With characteristic hyperbole he described the Hamburg summit on Twitter as a “wonderful success.”

For Merkel, Hamburg was a mixed blessing. She succeeded in holding the G20 together on globalized trade, for now, and prevented further cracks emerging over the Paris climate deal.

But when Germans go to the polls in September, few will remember the G20 communiqué and many will remember three nights of running street battles, traumatized Hamburg residents, looted stores, and burnt-out cars.

Small Steps

On the final day of talks, a seasoned if exhausted G20 official suggested Europe was “moving in small steps toward a certain normality” with the Trump administration. The official left open what that normality will be.

My inkling of that new normality took shape as I departed my Hamburg press pen after two days of expensive activity, catching up with remarks of departing G20 leaders. While Trump promised on Twitter to “fix the many bad trade deals” the US has signed, another had urged colleagues to recognize the need for “interconnected growth for shared prosperity.”

The plea for growth and co-operation was not from Trump but Xi Jinping, president of China. His last words to the G20 colleagues: “Those who work alone, add; those who work together, multiply.”

In the era of diplomatic innovations – from Trump on Twitter and to leased Chinese panda bears – Hamburg had the air of an American Requiem.