Big gatherings of world leaders tend to be heavily scripted affairs. Top advisers from each country hammer out agreements in advance so their bosses can sign bland communiques and pose for warm, if artificial, group photos.
Friday’s G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, is going to be very, very different. President Trump is the least popular American leader in decades, and is at odds with the heads of almost every other G20 country on issues ranging from climate change to the future of NATO to the challenge posed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Trump also has tense personal relationships with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new French President Emmanuel Macron, both of whom have publicly lambasted him for his leadership style and policies. Merkel has pointedly said that “the times when we could completely rely on others” (meaning America) are over. Macron has mockingly encouraged American climate scientists to move to France while also publicly lumping Trump in with autocrats like Putin and Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan.
That means that for the first time in modern history, Western leaders are being forced to choose between trying to confront the US and trying to find ways of working around it — something that would have been unimaginable in the decades after World War II.
“Trump is different from other presidents in that outsiders are now spending a great deal of time figuring out how to manipulate him,” says Steve Saideman, an expert on the Western alliance at Canada’s Carleton University. “[Allies] are having a conversation about whether you want to confront the insane elephant in the room — or bypass it, smooth it, accommodate it.”
All of this makes the G20 meeting this Friday — an annual summit of leaders of 19 large countries and the European Union — far more dramatic than it has any right to be.
“I think boring is fair,” Tom Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, tells me when asked about the typical course of a G20 meeting. “This time is totally different.”
The ally’s new dilemma: confront America or go around it?
The G20 was created in 1999, mostly as a venue for economic coordination between major powers like the US, Germany, and the UK. Its members are overwhelmingly liberal democracies aligned with the US. As a result, you typically have the US and its allies setting the agenda, with other countries like China and Russia responding.
Trump has completely thrown off this usual dynamic.
His wishy-washy comments about the mutual defense provision of the NATO charter have many Western allies worried that he wouldn’t actually come to their aid in a possible military conflict with Russia. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement in East Asia frustrated Japan and South Korea; his withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement infuriated Germany and France.
In a certain sense, Trump — who campaigned as a historically talented dealmaker — has ironically been the anti-deal president. It’s not just that he hasn’t struck a single major agreements with a foreign power; it’s that he has called into question many previous ones — leading American allies to wonder just how much they can trust America’s commitment to the entire international order.
Another part of the problem is Trump himself. The president’s knowledge of world affairs is so limited, his temperament so mercurial, that it’s difficult to know how long he’ll stick to any particular policy stance or what will cause him to change his mind. Trump, for example, campaigned as someone who would force China to solve the North Korean nuclear crisis on its own. Then he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April — and told the Wall Street Journal that “after listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.”
This kind of about-face means that even when Trump does commit to traditional American policy stances — like when he endorsed NATO’s mutual defense agreement in a speech in Poland on Thursday morning — it’s hard to know how seriously to take it. Will he continue to support NATO after he meets with Vladimir Putin, as he’s scheduled to do at the G20?
These two problems, policy and personality, create a uniquely challenging environment for Western leaders. Not only do you have to somehow get Trump to credibly commit to things that Western countries have long taken for granted, but you also have to do it while working around his fragile ego, sensitivity to slights real or perceived, and autocratic tendencies.
“The issues matter, because they’re the stakes for everyone involved,” Saideman says. But “winning on your issues ... is about trying to play Trump.”
So far, Western leaders have adopted a series of different approaches to this.
Some, like France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel, have outright positioned themselves as alternative standard-bearers for the West, taking not-so-veiled shots at Trump in public appearances.
“Whoever believes that you can solve problems through isolation and protectionism is making a grave error,” Merkel said just last week. “The world has become less united. ... The discord is obvious, and it would be dishonest to paper over the conflict.”
Others — most notably Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — have tried to avoid outright confrontation with Trump and influence him more subtly. His government has been relatively friendly to the Trump administration in public, while at the same time putting a lot of effort into building ties with American leaders at the lower levels, like having Canadian politician Brian Mulroney reach out to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, a personal friend, in an attempt to more subtly influence the American leader.
We’ll see all of these various strategies on display at the G20 — a reflection of the fact that the world order is less settled than it has ever been in recent memory.
“You’ve got these big leaders who are all pretty significant figures ... big personalities, big views, and often clashing with each other,” Wright says. “It’s the first G20 of an age of rivalry, a more nationalist age.”
In short, it’s the first G20 of Trump’s new world order.