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Leaders of the globe’s biggest 20 economies met in Osaka, Japan, this weekend for their annual summit. But the G-20 meeting may be most remembered for a handshake that happened hundreds of miles away, between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un – the result of an overture Mr. Trump tweeted Saturday morning.
But behind show-stopper events, what the G-20 gathering underscored time and again was the intensifying global battle between two visions of governance: a West-led order of democratic governance and free market economics, on the one hand, and the authoritarian-ruled alternative of state-directed economies, on the other. And part of the summit’s tension stems from countries adjusting to an American president who doesn’t play his country’s traditional role in the postwar order.
“What we’ve been seeing in recent years is a totalitarian axis that is taking shape, a loose collection of authoritarian-minded regimes that is led by Russia and China and which sees the weakening of U.S. power and the global order the U.S. has led as good for them,” says Harry Kazianis of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “We saw this long-term battle on display at the G-20 in a number of ways.”
A truce reached by U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in their countries’ trade war may have been the headline news out of the Group of 20 summit over the weekend.
That, and Mr. Trump’s surprise overture to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that culminated in a sitting American president stepping onto North Korean soil for the first time. Mr. Trump had tweeted an invitation to Mr. Kim to meet for a handshake at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas Sunday, during his stopover with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“It’s just a step,” an uncharacteristically cautious Mr. Trump said of the historic meeting. “It might be an important step, it might not.”
After about a minute on North Korean soil, Mr. Trump sat down for an hour with Mr. Kim. Later Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters he expects lower-level talks on the North’s nuclear weapons to get underway before the end of July.
But behind those show-stopping events, what the gathering of the leaders of the world’s 20 largest economies underscored time and again, in large ways and small, was the intensifying global battle between two visions of governance: the West-led liberal world order of democratic governance and free-market economics, on one hand, and the authoritarian-ruled alternative of state-directed economies led by China and Russia on the other. Mr. Trump embarked on his Asia trip tweeting he was “off to save the free world,” though he spent much of the summit in seemingly friendly meetings with strongmen.
“What we’ve been seeing in recent years is a totalitarian axis that is taking shape, a loose collection of authoritarian-minded regimes that is led by Russia and China and which sees the weakening of U.S. power and the global order the U.S. has led as good for them,” says Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.
“We saw this long-term battle on display at the G-20 in a number of ways,” he says, citing perhaps the most high-profile example: The world’s largest two economies, China and the U.S., are expected to relaunch talks in coming weeks, and Mr. Trump has lifted some restrictions he had imposed on U.S. companies selling high-tech products to Chinese telecom giant Huawei.
“The U.S. and China reached a short-term truce in Osaka because it’s something both leaders very much wanted for their domestic situations,” Mr. Kazianis says. Mr. Xi wants a “period of calm” as China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic later this year, while Mr. Trump is heading into a reelection campaign.
“But the long-term challenge is that both countries see each other as enemies now,” Mr. Kazianis adds, “and I don’t see that changing for at least a generation.”
Evidence of the “totalitarian axis” having the wind in its sails came in various forms in Osaka.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set the tone with an interview with the Financial Times on the eve of his arrival, in which he proclaimed that “the liberal idea” – which he defined as open borders and multiculturalism – “has become obsolete.”
What has replaced that waning Western vision are national populist movements, Mr. Putin said – adding that Mr. Trump’s recognition of this shift led to his 2016 victory.
The Russian leader’s pronouncement that “liberals” cannot “simply dictate to anyone just like they have been attempting to do over the recent decades” followed him throughout the two-day summit – from an icy encounter with British Prime Minister Theresa May to a much friendlier one-on-one with Mr. Trump.
Indeed Mr. Trump suggested some jealousy over the Russian strongman’s relative isolation from a free press as a troupe of reporters noisily peppered him with questions. “Get rid of them,” he quipped to Mr. Putin. “Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do.”
Asked by a reporter about Russian interference in U.S. voting, Mr. Trump turned to Mr. Putin, smiled and wagged his finger, and said, “Don’t meddle in the election, president.”
Some analysts noted the change in Mr. Putin’s standing from the last G-20 summit in Buenos Aires, where Mr. Trump called off their meeting over Russia’s detention of Ukrainian sailors in the Kerch Strait.
“Well, those 23 Ukrainian sailors are still in jail,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She notes that Mr. Trump tends to approach international gatherings like the G-20 as transactional opportunities – he lauded the trade-war truce with China as an accord that would result in major sales for U.S. farmers, for example – rather than as venues for advancing American leadership and values.
But China’s Mr. Xi also had a turn assailing the West’s leadership, saying rising protectionism and defensiveness in the world’s developed countries threaten to reverse rising prosperity – though he did not name Mr. Trump’s frequent recourse to tariffs as economic policy.
Back in the fold
Even the G-20 leaders’ “family photo” displayed in full color an authoritarian wing of world leadership on the rise.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was relegated to a far wing of the traditional photo, symbolizing his pariah status in the wake of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
This year, the crown prince stood front and center, between the summit’s host, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo [Editor’s note: name rendered in traditional Japanese style], and Mr. Trump.
Traditional protocol calls for that placement, since Saudi Arabia hosts next year’s G-20 summit in Riyadh. But Mr. Trump went a step further, hosting the crown prince at a breakfast Saturday and showering him with accolades for his “spectacular job” of ushering the Saudi kingdom through a “revolution” of political and economic reform.
Part of the tension between two competing visions at the summit stems from countries adjusting to an American president who doesn’t play the traditional role for such gatherings of leaders of the post-war order, based on democratic principles including human rights, and free markets.
“The challenge for U.S. allies and more like-minded countries is that Donald Trump undermines this [liberal] order by constantly crossing an enemy line between the democracies and totalitarian states,” says Mr. Kazianis. “He doesn’t want to be a dictator, but he says and does things that suggest he doesn’t understand what it means to be the American president on the world stage.”
‘Democracy is you’
Some leaders from the Western wing cautioned against blaming particular leaders to explain today’s upheaval and backlash against globalization in established democracies.
Asked at a press conference to respond to Mr. Putin’s pronouncement of the liberal order’s demise, French President Emmanuel Macron was matter of fact. “If one looks at the world we live in, one can’t avoid seeing that there is a crisis in our democracies” and in capitalism, he said.
Yet while the “illiberal” governing options might give the impression of being more efficient, Mr. Macron said, the stability of those regimes “rarely lasts.”
Having faced his own populist challenge from the yellow vest movement, the French president said, “We have to reform, but at the same time we must never lose what has been at the foundation of our modern governance.” The strength of the democratic system is that it puts the individual “at the top,” Mr. Macron added, and “our challenge as leaders is convincing the population that in the end that democracy is you.”
That lofty analysis was a reminder of why some Osaka participants said they viewed the clashing views on display at the summit as a strength of the G-20 approach.
“What makes G-20 so important and what this summit has demonstrated in many ways is that this is one of the few forums we have in the world that bring China and Russia into the discussion of ideas with what we traditionally call the West,” says one Japanese diplomat, who requested anonymity to discuss the summit more freely. “And then there are the countries that don’t necessarily identify with either of the sides, but they have a say, too.”
Calling the number 20 “important” – not too unwieldy for genuine discussion, like the United Nations can be, not too much a like-minded group, like the Group of 7 – the diplomat said the summit proved its worth. His evidence? That leaders found some compromise on controversial topics like climate change and reform of the World Trade Organization, while forging new ground on women’s empowerment, on an “Osaka framework” for a global free flow of data, and on reducing marine plastics.
“So I see all this debate as an opportunity,” the diplomat says. “Yes, there are clashes of ideas, but we also see signs of a coming together on some of the central issues facing the world.”