OSAKA, Japan — The international order — and the multilateral trading system that underpins it — are hanging by a thread.
As the leaders of the Group of 20 economies gathered for their annual summit on Friday, the main question seemed to be: Who among them is going to snip it?
Would it be U.S. President Donald Trump, whose wrecking-ball approach to foreign relations has put everyone on edge at every summit he has attended? Or French President Emmanuel Macron, the self-declared disruptor, who threatened to torpedo the summit’s conclusions if the language on climate change doesn’t meet his demands?
Would it be Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose hardline approach to trade negotiations, and confidence in his nation’s inevitable supremacy, has flummoxed officials in Washington, Brussels and Geneva desperate to get Beijing to make good on promises to play by the economic rules?
Or would it be one of the strongmen — President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey or King Mohammed Bin Salman of Saudi Arabia? All three seem intent on not letting small complications like fundamental human rights, sovereign borders, or rule of law get in the way of their vision of stability and regime preservation.
The G20 host, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, did his utmost to present a façade of normalcy and control. Yet, there was a foreboding sense at the summit venue in Osaka — fittingly at the height of monsoon season in Japan — that the meticulously curated orderliness could snap at any moment.
The official opening session had not even taken place on Friday morning when European Council President Donald Tusk issued an emotional plea to his fellow leaders to halt what seems to be an accelerating backslide into nationalist, protectionist, egotistical, unilateralist brinkmanship.
“The global stage cannot become an arena where the stronger will dictate their conditions to the weaker, where egoism will dominate over solidarity, and where nationalistic emotions will dominate over common sense,” Tusk said at a news conference. “We should understand that we have a responsibility not only for our own interests, but above all, for peace and a safe, fair world order.”
Tusk, who grew up in Communist Poland, participated in the pro-democracy Solidarity movement and later served as Polish prime minister, also lashed out at Putin for declaring liberalism “obsolete” in a pre-G20 interview with the Financial Times.
“I have to say that I strongly disagree,” Tusk said. “We are here as Europeans also to firmly and univocally defend and promote liberal democracy. Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete, also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete. For us in Europe, these are and will remain essential and vibrant values. What I find really obsolete are: authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs. Even if sometimes they may seem effective.”
But the mere fact Tusk felt compelled to make such a statement at such a premiere diplomatic conference suggested that his side, if not losing outright, was seriously on the defensive.
Putin is hardly the only opponent of liberalism crowing of victory. Within the European Council that Tusk leads, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán repeatedly makes such statements, proclaiming himself a champion of illiberalism and of Christian Europe.
Signs of democracy’s failings, or at least its severe limitations, seem to be everywhere.
The World Trade Organization’s dispute resolution system, which prevents routine disagreements from escalating into tariff wars that disrupt worldwide commerce, will effectively stop functioning at the end of this year unless Trump can be persuaded to allow the reappointment of judges that the U.S. has blocked.
In the United Kingdom politics are largely paralyzed, and the national economy is at grave risk, after a slim majority of voters backed a public referendum to quit the EU — but the government has failed so far to find a Brexit plan that can win a majority in the House of Commons.
In the U.S., differences between Republicans and Democrats increasingly seem less a matter of political disagreement than evidence of visceral societal divisions.
In Continental Europe, a rise of nationalism and populism has cut sharply into the number of pro-EU members of the European Parliament, leaving the bloc at serious risk of a deadlock over how to choose a new European Commission president and fill other top jobs.
Meanwhile, the Iran nuclear deal seems on the edge of collapse. President Bashar al-Assad remains in power in Syria. Russian-sponsored militias continue to occupy eastern Ukraine. Long-simmering conflicts — Israel-Palestine, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Cyprus, Sudan, Yemen — are no closer to resolution.
What a globalized, gobsmacking mess.
Abe, on behalf of Japan, is seeking to use the G20 to push for what he calls the “Osaka Track.” That represents an effort to reach international agreements on data governance that he hopes will also help provide the political prodding needed to improve and preserve the WTO.
“The common thread,” Japan’s ambassador to the EU, Kazuo Kodama, said in a recent speech on the G20 goals, “is our desire to give people greater confidence in their future. Regained confidence in the future is essential not only for sustainable growth but also for public support in multilateralism.”
He added, “We very much hope that Osaka will make solid contributions to that end.”
Even Putin, in his interview with the FT, said he was concerned about a new arms race between Washington and Moscow, and he expressed nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War
At the summit, however, officials privately voiced doubts — particularly on the ability of negotiators to reach an accord on language regarding free trade, and climate change that would be acceptable to all of the leaders in a final communique.
Trump, before and after arriving in Osaka, once again brutally slammed America’s traditional allies, accusing EU countries of exploiting their friendship with the U.S. and alleging that Japan would do nothing to help if the U.S. were attacked.
“European nations were set up in order to take advantage of the United States,” Trump said in an interview with the Fox Business Network. He said that the U.S. was committed to defend Japan militarily but if the U.S. faced an attack, Japan could just watch it on a “Sony television.”
Meanwhile, danger seems to be increasing on a daily basis of new and unpredictable economic and military conflicts. Ahead of the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron chastised Trump for threatening a military strike on Iran, which agreed to end its nuclear weapons program, while the American president is simultaneously developing a warm, personal relationship with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un, who already possesses nuclear weapons and has launched test missiles. “Where is the coherence?” Macron asked.
Even Putin, in his interview with the FT, said he was concerned about a new arms race between Washington and Moscow, and he expressed nostalgia for the good old days of the Cold War — when global conflicts at least seemed to be carried out according to an agreed-upon rulebook.
“The Cold War was a bad thing ,” the FT quoted Putin as saying, “but there were at least some rules that all participants in international communication more or less adhered to or tried to follow. Now, it seems that there are no rules at all.”
Tusk, at his news conference, noted that Japan — perhaps more than any other country— understood the potentially awful consequences of a world unraveling into chaos and bloodshed.
“Before coming to Osaka, I visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki where I met with survivors of the nuclear bombings,” Tusk said. “They understand only too well the value of international cooperation because they know what a global conflict may lead to.”