Hegemon opts out
We live in strange times. Eddie Ford looks at the G20 summit in Hamburg
Showing the tensions in the disintegrating world order, last week’s G20 summit in Hamburg has been accurately described by various commentators as the “G19 plus one”. Not for nothing did Angela Merkel and her coterie of bureaucrats spend an inordinate amount of time formulating a suitable communiqué that attempted to conceal or minimise the differences displayed at the meeting.
Of course, if the “one” had been South Korea or Argentina - or even Russia or China - then that would not really have mattered. Just shrug your shoulders and accept that this sort of thing happens. Try again at the next summit. But, when the dissenting voice is that of the United States, it is an entirely different matter. The G20, G7, United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, etc. All of these major institutions, without exception, are integral parts of the global architecture that emerged from 1943-45 onwards - which was quite clearly American, with John Maynard Keynes merely negotiating the terms of the surrender of the British empire to the new global hegemon.
Apart from the Soviet Union and its vassals, the entire capitalist world - to a greater or lesser degree - was incorporated into this US-led world order. What is important to remember is that the previous British hegemony was nothing compared to the strength of the US, which spends more on arms than the next seven countries combined - in 2015 it had a declared military budget of $601 billion.
British hegemony, by contrast, always aimed to have a bigger navy than its two closest rivals. Pre-World War I, Britain may have been the global hegemon, sure, but in terms of Europe its main political and diplomatic efforts went into securing a balance of power - playing off Germany against France, for instance, or using Russia to tilt the balance one way or another. Britain was never the master of the world in the way that the US has been since 1945.
Donald Trump is trying to portray the US as the victim of the system it created in order to exploit the world - which might convince some people at the bottom of the pile in America. But anybody familiar with modern history or the political-economic realities of the contemporary world knows that the boot is on the other foot and always has been: the US ruthlessly exploits the rest of the world.
The G20 conference saw the first face-to-face get-together between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. This went beyond its scheduled time, with his daughter having to remind him that things were overrunning. Indeed, the presence of Ivanka Trump at the summit has raised some eyebrows - especially when she briefly stood in for her father, taking his seat between Theresa May and Chinese president Xi Jinping in one session. Typically, a foreign minister or very senior government official would substitute for a leader taking time out.
Understandably, a Russian diplomat could not resist tweeting a picture of the table - though he hastily deleted it a few hours later. Trying to smooth things over, Merkel said Ivanka’s appearance was “perfectly normal” and Theresa May thought it was “entirely reasonable” that Trump had allowed his daughter to take his seat - after all, she had led a session on female entrepreneurship earlier in the day during a World Bank initiative. However, writing in the Financial Times, professor Lawrence Summers was not so approving - there is no precedent for such a thing, which was “insulting to the others present and sends a signal of disempowerment regarding senior officials” (July 9).
We still do not know the exact nature of the conversation between Trump and Putin, or precisely what deals were struck - if any. But it seems that the US president said that if Putin dropped his alliance with Bashar Assad and Iran, then Russia would be able to keep its naval base in Tartus, Syria - its only Mediterranean repair and replenishment spot, established under a 1971 agreement with Ba’athist Syria (thus sparing Russia’s warships the trip back to their Black Sea bases through the Turkish Straits).1 Yet this is hardly a US gift to make. Russia is in alliance with the Syrian government whose forces control Damascus and Aleppo - the two biggest population centres. It also has an alliance with Iran, which now has great influence in Iraq, courtesy of the George Bush/Tony Blair invasion in 2003 - an extraordinary outcome.
Nothing seems to have happened over Ukraine, the sanctions still remaining in place - Trump did not want to come over as soft, under fire as he is from the Democrats and some Republicans over alleged ‘inappropriate’ contacts with Russia (reignited with a vengeance by the Donald Trump Jr furore). Another non-starter was the supposed cyber security “pact” with Russia, which at one point saw Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, heaping praise on the project to erect an “impenetrable” cyber security unit - the pact was a “very important step forward” he said. Only hours later though, Trump unceremoniously ditched the plan after an army of critics expressed disbelief at the idea of working with the country accused of orchestrating last year’s hacking operation during the presidential campaign. A senior Republican senator, Lindsey O Graham, remarked that Trump’s plan was “not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty close”.2
Then there was the chatter from Trump about striking a “very powerful” post-Brexit trade deal with the UK “very quickly” - he hailed the “very special relationship” he had developed with the British prime minister. This might sound good, but Trump is in no position to strike such a deal. Britain has to be out of the European Union first - how long is that going to take? Theresa May certainly does not know, nor does Donald Trump - so it is more meaningless talk, primarily for public consumption in both the UK and US.
Naturally, it is also in the interests of May not to come across as a complete victim in the EU talks by pretending she can pull off a miraculous deal with the Trump administration.
The other big bone of contention was the Paris agreement on climate change. For one, Theresa May said she was “dismayed” at the US decision to pull out of the accord and at Hamburg had “personally urged” the president to reconsider. This should not come as a surprise, given that during his election campaign Trump promised that he would get tough with the world (and very tough with all this environmental nonsense - which is all a “Chinese hoax” anyway). US industry will not be held back by Paris or any other agreement and will continue to dig for coal and drill for oil - that is the country’s manifest destiny. Go screw the planet.
Of course, it is once again all about image, and in terms of Trump’s particular electorate, it goes down well - tearing up burdensome red tape and oppressive regulations. Down with those foreigners. On the other hand, there is widespread recognition, including in the United States, of the essential truth of what the scientists are saying about global warming and CO2 levels - it is not just the concern of various politicians and ‘professional’ environmental activists. The German government came under intense public pressure to abandon nuclear power, which it began to do in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear disaster (the phase out is due to be completed in 2022).
But, once again, the Paris agreement itself is all about image, spin and PR - with everybody signed up bar the US, Syria and Nicaragua - the latter because it thought the deal was a joke and did not go anyway near far enough: why sign up to nonsense? The Nicaraguan government is right in its opinion of the Paris agreement, because there is nothing binding about it - all the targets are just lofty aspirations and hot air. Telling you everything, the oil companies are urging Trump not to withdraw from the accord, as it makes them look bad - and they desperately want to look good.
There is the telling example of BP, which under its head, Lord Browne, rebranded itself as ‘beyond petroleum’ and started making gestures about wind turbines, turned their petrol stations green, adopted the sunburst logo (ie, the ‘Helios’ symbol named after the Greek sun god), along with a general $200 million advertising and marketing campaign. The idea that BP was disinvesting from oil was absolute nonsense, of course, but the aim was to alter public perceptions. Ditto with the Paris agreement, which committed no government to anything - but made them look right-on and progressive in some people’s eyes. From that angle, big business thinks Donald Trump has scored an own goal by pulling out of the accord. Why needlessly lose friends and the ability to influence people?
Another thorny issue at the summit, or at least in the meeting between Trump and Putin - and presumably between the European leaders and China - is North Korea. Under the infallible and near divine leadership of Kim Jong-un, the country has been enthusiastically pursuing missile and nuclear technology - having pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in October 2003 with “immediate effect”. Its official news agency, KCNA, claimed that “we have no intention of producing nuclear weapons and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes such as the production of electricity”.3 Under the terms of the 1968 NPT, states are permitted to do what Iran has done and take your technology so far - but placing a warhead on a missile is definitely not allowed. On the other hand, it also worth pointing out that the five permanent members of the security council, all nuclear powers, are obligated under the NPT to get rid of their nuclear weapons - our readers, doubtlessly, have noticed how these countries have been continuously downgrading their nuclear arsenals. A bit like the Labour Party, which in its For the many, not the few manifesto committed itself - under the guise of the NPT - to building a new generation of Trident missiles, with independently guided/targeted warheads capable of wiping out 160 to 170 cities. All done in the name of nuclear disarmament.
The reality is that these five powers upgrade their arsenals one decade after another. True, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Russia and the US now have fewer missiles - Ukraine is not a nuclear country any more, nor is any other former part of the Soviet Union. The US also got rid of some outdated nuclear weapons.
Clearly, North Korea has poured a lot of resources into developing its nuclear weapons programme. On one level, perhaps you cannot blame them. Look at what happened to Iraq, which got dismembered not because it had WMDs, but precisely because it did not have WMDs. Kim Jong-un does not want to suffer the same fate as Saddam Hussein. The Trump administration’s constant denunciation of North Korea is total hypocrisy from beginning to end, needless to say, and not just down to the fact that it is not disarming - look at America’s allies, crucially Israel. Also not a signatory to the NPT, Israel, perhaps, has 160-170 nuclear warheads. So where are the threats? The sanctions? The urgent summits? There are, of course, none.