US needs multilateralism as much as its partners
At the G20 summit in Argentina in November, it was counted as a major achievement that the assembled world leaders were able to produce a joint communiqué. That normally routine task had proved beyond the leaders who had assembled a few weeks earlier at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Papua New Guinea. There was also no final communiqué agreed at the G7 summit in Canada earlier in the year.
The fact that world leaders are finding it so hard to agree on common forms of words, however bland, is troubling. It points to a breakdown in trust and the mechanisms of international co-operation. That state of affairs must improve over the coming year — or the world will be dangerously vulnerable to an economic or financial crisis that might require a co-ordinated global response. Even without an emergency, the leaders of the world’s largest economies will need to rediscover the habit of co-operation or the world could drift into an intensified trade war.
A key sign of the health (or otherwise) of international governance will be how well the G20 functions in 2019, when Japan will chair it. The Japanese can potentially play the role of bridge-builders, as close allies of US and also major trading partners of China. For while it is clear the most important discussions on the US-China trade dispute will take place directly between Washington and Beijing, the whole world has a stake in the outcome.
Major trading powers, such as Japan and the EU, should continue to insist on the importance of maintaining a rules-based trading system, with the WTO at its core. They can put pressure on China on questions such as intellectual property theft, while pushing back against the unilateral imposition of US tariffs, sometimes on dubious national security grounds. The G20, as well as the G7, can be important forums for re-stating shared principles and putting collective pressure on both the US and China to respect international norms.
Cynics might dismiss international summits as pointless gatherings that specialise in producing meaningless verbiage. Such scepticism misses the point. At moments of crisis, it is crucial that world leaders are able to work together. That was never more evident than in the first two G20 summit meetings, held in Washington and London in 2008 and 2009. By co-ordinating their response to the global financial crisis, international leaders were able to send a reassuring signal to the markets and to pump growth back into the global economy. In doing so, they probably prevented a severe economic shock from turning into a global depression.
But those were different times, when the leaders of the US and China were not locked into a trade war; and when populists were not in power in important G20 countries, such as Italy, Mexico and Brazil. It is an open question whether world leaders will be able to respond as effectively to a new crisis.
For all the Trump administration’s insistence on bilateralism, not multilateralism, as its preferred method of international diplomacy, even the US ultimately needs a functioning multilateral order. Some international issues simply cannot be fixed bilaterally.
These include environmental issues such as climate change, though these appear to weigh little in the Trump White House. They also encompass critical economic issues, such as trade and the functioning of the international financial system. US power can be brought to bear to fix specific grievances with trading partners. But multilateral co-operation is needed to maintain an open global economy. That principle needs to be remembered and upheld in the coming year.