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The big question at the G-20 meeting—How far will Trump go?

  • Trump is meeting with G-20 leaders in Hamburg, Germany.
  • The question is: How far will he go to disavow the G-20 agenda the US has ushered for the past decade?
  • How strongly and effectively will the rest of the G-20 counter Trump's potentially damaging isolationist tendencies?

As leaders of the world's largest economies gather in Germany this weekend for the G-20 summit, the Trump administration is promising to dictate terms to the group on steel exports among other issues, revealing a basic lack of understanding of a body that works by consensus. So, while President Trump can easily say no to virtually anything that's put on the table at the summit, and thereby insure a neutered G-20, he will have a much harder time getting the other countries to say yes to his "America First" agenda.

Unfortunately, even if President Trump's approach to the summit seems to be a recipe for failure, the G-20 itself had already proved itself to be increasingly ineffectual well before Donald Trump came on the scene.

The group has gravitated in recent years toward non-binding policy pronouncements on an ever-widening array of issues, marking a steady deterioration from the London and Pittsburgh Summits of 2009, when the imperative of crisis response motivated leaders, finance ministers, and central bankers to hash out meaningful and binding commitments. Subsequent summits have lacked the same sense of urgency and have failed to deliver any kind of agenda that can be pinpointed as clearly as "saving the global economy."

"The question in Hamburg this weekend is just how far the White House will go to disavow the G-20 agenda the U.S. has ushered for the past decade, and how strongly and effectively the rest of the G-20 might counter the Trump administration's more damaging isolationist tendencies."

Despite these disappointments, the G-20 has garnered some post-crisis successes, certainly enough to justify its continued existence. First and foremost, a global commitment to address climate change depended on important groundwork made within the G-20. Second, even as conflict and failures continued to define key elements of the trade and macroeconomic agenda, steady adherence to core principles within the G-20 arguably played a salutary role in the face of difficult national politics. And finally, the G-20's clear prioritization of infrastructure investment, initially as a developing country issue and then as a universal agenda item, has no doubt motivated much of the recent work in institutions like the multilateral development banks (MDBs).

This weekend, the world will be closely watching as President Trump's "America First" foreign policy debuts in a multilateral venue that has long embraced global integration and cooperation. Unfortunately, the lack of U.S. leadership on this agenda going forward will show how important that very leadership has been up to now. Starting today, no longer is there a U.S.-backed G-20 agenda that seeks to combat climate change, to coordinate on macroeconomic policy, to avoid trade protectionism, or to elevate support for initiatives to alleviate poverty in developing countries as before. This realization is going to have a big impact on the ability of this forum to succeed – or not.

The question in Hamburg this weekend is just how far the White House will go to disavow the G-20 agenda the U.S. has ushered for the past decade, and how strongly and effectively the rest of the G-20 might counter the Trump administration's more damaging isolationist tendencies. On the latter, Chancellor Merkel, along with China's President Xi, has vowed to make a strong push at this week's summit in favor of a robust climate agenda. And on the former, the White House itself is showing some signs of adopting the playbook of its predecessors, using the G-20 to roll out a new initiative on women's entrepreneurship in developing countries with backing from other key G-20 countries.

In recent months, President Trump has called on other countries to share more of the burden with the United States when it comes to security and foreign aid. This weekend he might discover that burden-sharing is just another word for multilateralism – an often frustrating, slow-moving process of global policy engagement that nonetheless holds the best hope for tackling the world's thorniest problems. For the sake of the flawed but necessary G-20 and the issues it seeks to address, let's hope he begins to learn that lesson quickly.

Commentary by Scott Morris, the former deputy assistant secretary for development finance and debt at the U.S. Treasury Department and is currently the director of the U.S. Development Policy Initiative at the Center for Global Development. Follow him on Twitter @morris_scotta.

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