The Hamburg G20: A clash of competing visions of world affairs

Europe's multilateral vision for the G20 appears to be merely a side show to the traditional struggle for national power.

It is fascinating to see how two very different plays are on stage at the G20 summit in Hamburg. Two views of the world and two concepts of managing international affairs compete with each other – not clashing head on, but rather competing for pole position in a race to the finish line.  The recent elbow check by professional cyclist Peter Sagan of his competitor Mark Cavendish in the Tour de France is an appropriate analogy. And the Hamburg G20 summit has a lot of elbow check potential.

The two different approaches are global governance versus a concertation of power; in other words, multilateralism versus multipolarity. In the European understanding, the legitimacy of the G20 rests on its contribution to fostering global public goods, such as sustainable and inclusive growth, open trade, socioeconomic progress, and protection of the environment and climate. Eventually, commitments to such goals could translate into joint support for better governance, the rule of law and increased popular political participation. This orientation and milieu is reinforced by the multiple side fora engaging non-state actors of all sorts – businesses, women’s groups, scientific establishments, youth associations, think tanks and more, providing analyses and recommendations to the main summit. In this sense, the G20 has evolved faster from an economic and financial crisis mechanism to a global governance mandate than did the G7.

But in the eyes of many large players participating in the club, the G20 is not about legitimacy but about power, because power rather than purpose or process is the real reference point of legitimacy. In this sense, the raison d’être of the G20 is not to organize commitments of participants to some common good but to serve as a platform for great power interests and preferences, and to balance competing claims and ambitions. Global governance is a tool, at best, but certainly not an end in itself; a tool that needs to deliver on the power interests of the actors rather than constrain their ambitions. Until the election of Donald Trump, the US approach to the G20 oscillated between power brokerage and global governance. But with Trump, the US has opted for the concert approach, in which the G20 process only has meaning in so far as it supports national interests.

Evidently, the German presidency wholeheartedly embraces the multilateral narrative. Supported by many in Europe, Berlin seeks to reconfirm global commitment to the Paris agreement and to an open trade regime. Germany has been eager to drive the sustainable development agenda, and has put particular emphasis on Africa, attempting to unite the major industrial nations behind a development strategy that addresses the causes of poverty, instability, conflict and migration. The summit communique will reflect these goals and strategies with benevolent rhetoric – though likely without tangible commitments.

But it should be noted that Hamburg is just one of the stages for this confluence of contradictions. While sherpas lead their final rounds of negotiations, China’s president Xi Jinping visits Berlin to take advantage of Europe’s puzzlement with America’s foreign policy. China is not there to help Europe out but to secure its own interests at a moment in which the cards seem to be being reshuffled. On the one hand China has a lot to lose from rising protectionism and could gain from being seen supporting EU goals on trade and climate, but on the other hand, it has its own national agenda of industrial development which is in competition with the US and Europe.

Xi pursues a “China first” agenda that is much more long term than Trump’s “America first”: he has control over a set of protectionist tools and, importantly, can control his tongue. Without doubt, Chancellor Angela Merkel is aware of the Chinese Spiel but also shrewd enough to score some bonus points among partners and European business for aligning China. It helps that the EU and Japan have reached a basic agreement in their free trade negotiations in time for the summit.  Neither will impress the Americans, of course, who are quite aware of the Chinese obsession with Japan’s dependence on the US, but it diffuses the attention for Trump and might even reassure Europeans to hold together.

This adds some context to Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw. For Trump, my colleagues Jeremy Shapiro and Piotr Buras have argued, the visit is hoped to provide an image boost for his domestic audience, and an opportunity to explore the divisions in Europe which he could take advantage of.  He may not be aware of the romanticist wonderland of the Polish Three Seas initiative, but he will welcome Poland’s ambitions to confront Brussels and balance Berlin.  Trump is ready to deliver on the Polish dream and give his blessing to coalitions opposed to Brussels. If he can make life harder for Berlin, that may pay off in his dealings with the Germans or the EU.

The story doesn't end there, though, as power politics and balancing tactics have spread to the second row already. Turkey’s role is a case in point: A short while ago Ankara gave in to Saudi advances on a Sunni front against Iran’s role in the Middle East. But now, the Turks oppose the Saudis alongside Iran in the crisis over Qatar. The North Korean nuclear missile program could yet become another trigger for power reshuffling if it escalates further. All of this demonstrates the limits of Europe’s multilateralist aspirations. What Europe and Germany in particular would like the G20 to become appears to be merely a sideshow to the great game – the traditional struggle for power and prevalence in a now deeply interconnected world.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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