After months of public disagreements with world leaders, U.S. President Donald Trump walked into the lion’s den Friday as the G20 summit got underway in Hamburg, Germany. To make matters more difficult, the theme for the summit is “Shaping an interconnected world,” and on the docket for discussion are issues of economic stability, enhancing sustainability into a shared future, and a push for responsible development. The theme seems to run counter to Trump’s longstanding message of “America first,” and the agenda items aren’t at the top of the president’s to-do list. So what should be expected from Trump in terms of U.S. thought leadership over the next two days of the summit? The answer is simple: not much.
Instead, Trump should focus more on fruitful bilateral meetings taking place alongside the summit, trying to reconcile at least some differences with world leaders on major issues, and garnering broader support on his own objectives. But none of this will be particularly easy.
The most consequential bilateral event on the side of the G20 is Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday. Originally scheduled to last 30 to 40 minutes, the meeting lasted two hours and 16 minutes, according to R.C. Hammond, a State Department spokesperson. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the two had a “very robust and lengthy exchange” about interference in the recent U.S. election, and initial reports from Russian state media report that other topics discussed include Syria, Ukraine, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity. It would be a missed opportunity if Trump did not tow a tough line on Russian cyber meddling, and it would be a mistake if Trump offered any relief on sanctions without Putin committing to discontinue his destabilizing actions in Eastern Ukraine. A full U.S. read out of the meeting is forthcoming.
During the summit itself, it will be important for the U.S. president to try to resolve some of the differences on global issues he has had with power players like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Just last week in an address to parliament, Merkel said, “Anyone who thinks the world’s problems can be solved with isolationism and protectionism is simply delusional.” Although she did not mention Trump by name, this is clearly in response to Trump’s controversial stance on free trade and climate change. When it comes to these issues, most of the G20 leaders on are on the opposite side of the spectrum from Trump, so we shouldn’t be surprised if global powers pursue their own agendas while leaving the U.S. on the sideline looking in. The major trade deal between Japan and the EU announced on Thursday is a perfect example. It would be a further missed opportunity if Trump does not spend the next two days trying to reconcile at least some of these major differences.
Lastly, Trump must try to gain broader support on some of his own foreign policy priorities. He should push Chinese President Xi Jinping to play a more active role to address the threat of North Korea, a role that Xi has been thus far reluctant to play. And he’ll have to go beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia to achieve wider support for his counterterrorism financing agendas. This won’t be easy; during the summit, fellow G20 members will be focusing on issues such as migration and sustainable development. Priorities may simply not line up this time.
Although much may still happen in the 24 hours left in Hamburg, the world is intently waiting to see what substantive items come out of the summit’s packed agenda. The United States should not expect sweeping ideas from the president. Instead, the best we can hope for are small clues that America won’t be left behind as other world powers work together toward a more economically prosperous and sustainable future.
Rachel Rizzo is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security’s Transatlantic Security Program.