The 2017 G20 summit was fraught with an authoritarian structure that pushed dire global problems to the peripheries
The international forum for the governments and central bank governors of 20 major economies, known as the G20, held its annual summit in recent weeks. Conducted in Hamburg, Germany, on 7-8 July 2017, the G20 summit this year is likely to be remembered for three reasons.
Firstly, it was yet another conference of the world’s political and economic elites, which excluded large proportions of marginalised nations from around the world whose voices are continually being ignored and deliberately silenced in international affairs. Secondly, the provocative conference was held in the famous port city’s centre, which has long been a hotbed of both left-wing and counter-cultural protest. Accordingly, the understandable outrage it sparked amongst Hamburg’s alternative and anarchist communities illustrates the high-handedness of Angela Merkel’s grand coalition government, which had envisioned a ‘festival of democracy’ that quickly turned into an Orwellian nightmare as a consequence of the authorities’ determination to curb any form of protest. And thirdly, the current world order, modelled after America’s image of both itself and its relation to the rest of the world, seems to be changing inexorably, not only as a result of the country’s increasing reluctance to continue its self-appointed role as the world’s policeman, but also because Donald Trump’s frequently repeated ‘America First’ litany lays bare the widening rift between the new administration and its counterparts in the international community.
The Group of Twenty (or G20), consisting of the heads of government of 19 major economies and representatives from the European Union, has drawn frequent criticism from intellectuals, activists and dissenting politicians from around the world. Whilst the bone of contention is not the group’s annual meeting, it is the elitist and outdated set-up – in a multi-polar world – that angers most commentators.
Dominated primarily by western countries, the G20 accounts for 85% of the gross world product (GWP), 80% of world trade and approximately half of the world land area. At first glance, these numbers suggest a wide-ranging inclusiveness, but their explanatory power is marred because well-off nations in the Euro-American world make up the bulk of the G20. Accordingly, the meetings at the G20 summits address the concerns of these countries and the institutions and networks they dominate, rather than democratising the decision-making processes in the political and economic spheres. Without taking sufficient notice of the most pressing concerns of poor and less developed areas of the world, the G20 meetings tend to perpetuate a world order, in which power, influence and wealth continue to be unevenly distributed.
Plagued by war, disease and famine, Yemen, for instance, is desperate for both attention and relief. The country situated at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula is the poorest one in the Arab world and currently facing a meltdown of its already weak political structure. But in addition to a plethora of economic, infrastructural and, most importantly, healthcare-related problems, Yemen has become the site of geo-political fissures in recent years. Tensions along the Persian Gulf littoral have been running high since the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known commonly as the Iran Nuclear Deal, brought the Islamic Republic back into the international fold in 2015. As a consequence, Iran has emerged as a serious competitor for the power wielded in this region by Saudi Arabia.
Whilst some commentators tend to paint this rivalry in the darkest colours of a convenient Islamophobic narrative (citing a long-standing religious conflict between the staunchly Sunni Arab kingdom on the one hand, and the strictly Shia Persian republic on the other), it is rooted in gross political facts. Instead of resolving these tensions around the negotiating table, both countries have become involved in a proxy war on Yemeni soil, with Iran supporting the predominantly Shia Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia trying to contain Houthi, and by implication, Iran’s influence. At the heart of this rift is, therefore, not a primarily religious or sectarian disagreement. It is the kind of conflict in which many countries were involved during the Cold War era in order to avoid ideologically driven destruction, often wreaking havoc in third countries with little or no connection to the original war parties.
But one looks in vain for Yemen making the headlines or being discussed at the G20 summit in Hamburg despite the plight of the civilian population, and it is only one example of a seemingly peripheral nation that is being ignored by complacent elites of the political and economic centres in the West.
Norway, an efficient and politically stable country that is rich in natural resources, was, like Yemen, ignored by the G20 for a long time. A prime example of a Scandinavian social democracy, Norway combines a business-friendly environment with well-funded public services. Yet, Labour-party politician Jonas Gahr Støre, the country’s former foreign secretary and incumbent leader of the opposition, characterised the G20 as “one of the greatest setbacks since World War II” in an interview with the German Spiegel magazine in 2010. Although Norway is one of the most generous contributors to international development programmes, it has no voice in what Gahr Støre called a “self-appointed group”, reminding him of the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15, at which Europe’s reactionaries attempted to roll back the liberalising tendencies inaugurated by the French Revolution. As a member of neither the European Union nor the G20, Norway’s considerable economic clout had been ignored until the current government, led by conservative Erna Solberg, was invited to attend the summit in Hamburg. However, any logical and objective criteria of who is invited or being heard at a G20 summit have yet to be made known to the public.
Provoking the Lefties
Conversely, what was announced by the authorities early on was the location of the summit in the city centre of Hamburg, as well as a 38-square-kilometre exclusion zone where protests would be forbidden. Adjacent to Hamburg’s infamous Schanzen-district and the Red Flora community centre, this zone was turned into an area in which basic democratic rights were de facto suspended because of what both the local and federal governments had called security concerns. In addition to the tensions arising from the spatial proximity of the summit and the gravity centre of Hamburg’s left-wing counter-culture, the police prevented activists from camping in areas designated for this purpose, effectively violating the verdict of a federal court that had ruled in the protesters’ favour. This chain of events exacerbated existing tensions, which had already been running high before the summit began.
Subsequent events thus followed the script of past G20 summits and similar international conferences. The important messages of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist activists drowned in a sea of televised violence, mutual accusations and police brutality. Clandestinely inserting themselves into the protest marches, rioters from Germany and other European countries started attacking the police and looting shops. Police in riot gear stepped in and indiscriminately attacked all protesters with water cannon, citing public safety as their most pressing concern. As a consequence, even peaceful protests were disrupted and the authorities painted all protesters with the same brush, ignoring the public’s legitimate concerns over both suspended civil liberties and the ramifications of the summit’s decisions. Most importantly, however, the heavy-handed approach of the law enforcement agencies dominated the news. Calls for transnational solidarity, the democratisation of the G20 and the urgency to act decisively on man-made climate change had to take a back seat. The summit in Hamburg, and the ill-chosen venue, precluded any reasonable compromise, turning the whole event into an incredibly costly, but ultimately inefficient, appointment with the accredited photographers and journalists.
Trump on the highway
In Donald Trump’s populist counter-public, any image seems to be better than no image at all, even if that means a ‘19 to 1 standoff’. Following Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord, the G20 was bound to be fraught with difficulties. However, even experienced diplomats were somewhat surprised by how decisively the parameters of international relations had changed in the first six months of Trump’s presidency. Tom Bernes, a Canadian G20 veteran and former high-level official at the IMF, said that politicians usually arrived at international summits in a “collaborative spirit”, admitting that “sometimes you had a difficult brief, but there was a sense of collaboration.” Yet Hamburg was surprisingly different, he said. “But this time there is the America first philosophy. Trump’s attitude is, ‘It is my way or the highway.’” Writing for The Guardian, Simon Tisdall’s verdict sounds equally bleak: “Established collaborative structures – such as the UN, international law and alliances, multilateral treaties and human rights conventions – are being tested to destruction or being repudiated outright. Last weekend’s G20 summit of the planet’s most powerful leaders, far from steadying the nerves, only added to the sense of a downward spiral.”
What, one might ask, has happened since Trump took office in January 2017? Having campaigned on a “nationalist, isolationist, protectionist and xenophobic agenda,” as Simon Tisdall explains, Trump is ready to withdraw from institutions and agreements that, no matter how flawed and lopsided they may be, have so far ensured a modicum of stability and international cooperation in times of crisis. By furthering his populist crusade in this fashion, Trump perpetuates the so-called “City upon a Hill”-attitude that is at the heart of the damaging fiction of American exceptionalism, or the belief that the US has both the duty and the right to create a world after its own image. Initially used by Puritan leader John Winthrop to admonish his co-religionists to lead a righteous life in the New World, this phrase has not only entered the American lexicon but has also served as a frequent justification if US leaders considered it expedient to take unilateral action in world affairs.
Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord is only the latest example of this detrimental strand in western, and especially US, history and intervention. For other leaders from around the world, this means that they have to come closer together, increase the levels of international cooperation and democratise the institutions in which the international community is transacting its affairs. The alternative is a politically fragmented world, in which populism and authoritarian solutions determine our lives. It is thus upon all of us to provide an alternative vision for the future, in which solidarity, cooperation and open borders frame a better life for the many rather than just the privileged few. But we can only implement this sea change in the political and economic arenas if we continue to challenge reductive traditions in order to become more inclusive, question hegemonic narratives of Euro-American modernity and speak truth to power in times of crisis.
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