Source: China State Council Information Office
More than four weeks have passed since the U.S. presidential election, and Donald Trump is still yet to concede to President-elect Joe Biden. Based on the events of last week’s G20 Leaders’ Summit however, the international community appears to have already moved on.
Unsurprisingly, the focus of this year’s summit was on the pandemic and the economic fallout. During the virtual gathering, most of the world’s leaders took the opportunity to call for greater international cooperation. Trump meanwhile, used the multilateral platform to project “America-first” dogma.
Isolated and alone
King Saman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi, opened the summit with a poignant call for unity. “We have a duty to face this summit together and give a strong message of hope and calm by adopting measures to mitigate this crisis,” the monarch said in his welcome message.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Chinese President Xi Jinping also called for greater international cooperation, emphasizing the need to support poorer nations.
“China is willing to strengthen cooperation with other countries in the research and development, production, and distribution of vaccines,” Xi told the G20 Summit. “We will … offer help and support to other developing countries, and work hard to make vaccines a public good that citizens of all countries can use and can afford,” he said.
Contrary to international community’s message of unity and solidarity, outgoing U.S. president Trump said America would ensure “domestic needs are met” first.
On the second day of the virtual summit, the attention turned towards the other defining challenge of our time; namely, climate change. On this issue as well, Trump revealed just how far the United States had drifted away from the international community.
During a virtual session on safeguarding the environment, G20 leaders praised the 2015 Paris climate change agreement as vital to saving the planet. Trump meanwhile, descended into a conspiratorial rant, calling it a plan “to kill the American economy”.
“His was the anomalous speech,” noted one source present at the event. “Everyone else talked about global matters of life and death.”
Ever the showman, Trump – in an emblematic and befitting final act on the G20 stage – skipped out of a “Pandemic Preparedness” meeting in order to play golf. Those present didn’t appear to mind his absence – if anything, they were likely relieved they didn’t have to listen to anymore “America First” vitriol.
Closing the Trump chapter
Evidence of the shifting attitude towards Donald Trump was highlighted when summit organizers chose not to broadcast his opening speech. It was later confirmed when leaders began taking thinly-veiled jibes at him.
Saudi’s Minister of Investment, Khalid al-Falih, landed one of the first shots, complaining that “When the world needed leadership, there was none.” The G20 was forced to step up because some nations had “turned inwards towards nationalism,” he added. Al-Falih didn’t mention Trump by name. He didn’t need to; no other leader has pulled out of so many global institutions or shredded so many multilateral agreements.
On Trump’s watch, the U.S has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the UN Human Rights Council, and (amidst the worst health crisis in more than a century) the World Health Organization. With each passing act of diplomatic violence, Trump has drawn the ire of allies; reduced the United States’ standing on the international stage; and made the world less stable in the process.
As Washington turned its back on multilateralism, Beijing embraced and defended it. In a keynote speech addressed to fellow G20 leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping confirmed that China remains committed to upholding free trade and multilateralism.
“China will always be a builder of global peace, a contributor to global development and a defender of international order,” Xi said. “On the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, China stands ready to pursue peaceful coexistence and common development with all countries.”
Multilateralism back on track
After four years spent at logger-heads with an inward-facing U.S. president, global leaders must literally be counting down the days until President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House.
As a staunch internationalist, Joe Biden’s victory represents a victory for multilateralism. The President-elect has consistently vowed to turn America away from unilateralism and pledged to immediately rejoin the Paris climate agreement, the Iran Nuclear Deal, and the World Health Organization.
For proponents of multilateralism, such events cannot come soon enough. But, while the United States’ return to the multilateral-fold is a welcome development, there exists – as with all significant change — some concern. To paraphrase the veteran U.S. diplomat Donald Rumsfeld, concern exists because of the “known unknowns.”
We know Biden has a history of supporting U.S. military intervention; we know Biden has called for a “fundamentally different” American foreign policy than the one that exists today; and we know that Biden went to great lengths during the campaign trail to position himself as the “tough on China” candidate. What we don’t know however, is how the relationship between the world’s two largest economies – recognized as at their lowest point in decades – will evolve under a Biden administration?