Could Hamburg signal the end of an era for the G20 as a global steering committee?

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Image: Hamburg Elbphilharmonie
Götterdämmerung in Hamburg

In a potentially ominous sign for this year’s G20 Summit, pieces from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung were played to a sold-out audience in the Elbphilarmonie (Hamburg’s new concert hall, which is also the venue for the G20 Summit starting July 7). Translated into English as ‘the Twilight of the Gods’, the opera is the final episode in the lengthy ring-cycle saga which looks at the rise and fall of rule by the supreme powers, and how infighting among the gods in Valhalla is the cause of their ultimate destruction. Were it not five hours in duration, Angela Merkel could do worse than reminding G20 leaders of the themes Wagner’s opera addresses ahead of their two days of meetings.

Because for all the pre-planning and background negotiations that will soon culminate in the G20 Hamburg communique, it is already clear that media coverage of the summit will gravitate towards one central theme: reactions to the words and actions of Donald Trump, and any possible friction they inspire. There is probably not much to be done about this, but as the legacy of the Hamburg Summit will in many ways come back to how well the meeting is received by the wider public, it is preferable that the narrative surrounding the Hamburg summit involves more than a fascination with Donald Trump, or the scale of the reaction by the Hamburg public or even other G20 leaders to the US President.

However, if there is an overwhelming lack of strong and consensus-based outcomes in Hamburg, this year could be heavily damaging to the G20’s claims to be more than a talk-shop. The G20 was designed to serve as a kind of ‘steering committee of global governance’, but if the prevailing memory of Hamburg is of fractious discussions between major global economies and little progress, then this could be the beginning of a decline of the G20 within the global governance ‘architecture’.

Political headwinds ahead of Hamburg

The global obstacles G20 leaders have assigned themselves to discuss in Hamburg are large. The global economy continues its lethargic return to growth, albeit at a slightly higher rate than last year, the global refugee crisis continues without a clear end in sight, over 20 million East Africans are staring into the face of a catastrophic famine, and the future of the global climate deal has been called into question.

In response to the challenges such as those described above, the official motto of Germany’s G20 presidency is the positive-sounding “shaping an interconnected world”. However, one only needs to look at a handful of online articles about the recently concluded G7 Summit in Taormina to see how well Italy’s G7 presidency lived up to its motto of “building the foundations of renewed trust”. Media coverage in Taormina overwhelmingly focused on the dissent of the Trump administration towards EU and German economic and trade policies, and the presaging by Trump of his intent to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord – Taormina will not go down as a high point in G7 history. It is an understatement from Donald Tusk, president of the EU council, that the G7 meeting in Sicily was “one of the most challenging … in years”. Whereas the G7 momentarily seemed to have found renewed enthusiasm after Russia’s eviction in 2014, mostly as a forum for prominent Western democracies to collectively work on global security and energy issues, its usefulness and specific purpose is again now open to question.

Might Hamburg see the G20 go the same way as the G7 in Taormina?

Unfortunately, the political conditions leading up to the Hamburg summit do not appear to be especially conducive to shifting the media predisposition for stories about the fractious state of global governance. Parties to a number of underlying tensions and outright conflicts that undermine the chances of a positive consensus will be represented in the G20 room, including: rivalries between NATO allies and Russia, who are both partaking in proxy conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well as an ongoing diplomatic spat over alleged overseas electoral interference by Russian-based cyber-contractors; EU leaders and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the latter now attending with an ambiguous post-election mandate and ongoing lack of clarity about her plan for Brexit; signatories to the Paris climate accord and the US which plans to quit the agreement; not to mention the US and Mexico, with the former literally working to construct a wall that will physically and politically divide the neighbouring countries even further than today.

Moreover, internal issues within several G20 member states will even further hamper the ability of attending leaders to engage in a productive dialogue; unlike the comprehensive power that Emanuel Macron and his party En Marche now wield in France post-election, the leaders of Brazil, South Africa, Italy, and potentially even Australia, will be attending in Hamburg without nearly as much freedom to shift their focus away from what is happening back home.

Admittedly, the cards G20 presidents are dealt prior to G20 summits are rarely favourable, but as indicated above, 2017 is looking to be a particularly difficult year for host President Angela Merkel, despite her unique experience as a G20 participant. However, on top of the pre-summit political conditions, there is also the matter of how the actual physical city of Hamburg is affected by the Summit that may factor into the future reputation of the forum.

Could Hamburg become another Battle in Seattle?

For the first time since 2010, the G20 will be taking place in a city and country that has serious form and experience when it comes to protesting globalisation. With restrictions on public assembly coming into effect in 2016 (Hangzhou, China), 2015 (Anatalya, Turkey), and 2013 (St Petersburg, Russia), the absence of a strong protest culture in Brisbane (2014), and the smaller scale of the summits in 2012 (Los Cabos, Mexico) and 2011 (Cannes, France), 2017 is looking to be the first G20 Summit to attract a large crowd of demonstrators in several years.

Until now, the worst public relations disaster for the G20 remains the 2010 Summit in Toronto, where 20,000 police and security officials faced off against 10,000 protestors. While the protest was for the most part peaceful, over 1000 arrests were made in the days surrounding the leaders’ meeting, several of which resulted in lengthy trials that alleged brutality on behalf of the police. As a result, media coverage during and after the summit overwhelmingly focused on altercations on the streets, rather than what happened in the leaders’ meeting room; even today, googling news stories about the G20 will still return results about the more violent events in Toronto.

Of serious concern, where Toronto saw protestors numbering in the tens of thousands, it is not improbable that Hamburg will draw well over 100,000 people on to the streets. While the early signs are that demonstrators will turn up for a variety of different reasons – anger at the perceived neo-liberal bent of the G20, disapproval of the authoritarian policies of a handful of G20 leaders, or frustrated anti-globalism, the possible scale of the turnout may be the only event that can overshadow media attention on Donald Trump (although the two stories will likely be heavily connected). And where the infamous riots surrounding the 1999 WTO Ministerial meeting are seen by many as a pivotal point for the anti-globalisation movement, which simultaneously harmed the WTO’s public reputation for several years afterwards, the same possibility potentially awaits the G20.

It could be worse

Despite the above doom and gloom, there are reasons to be hopeful, some recently covered in this blog, but there is no point sticking one’s head in the sand. The G20 exists to serve as a dialogue for leaders, and as a forum for improving the lives of citizens in both G20 and non-G20 countries. The legitimacy of the G20 therefore depends on it actually being effective, to the point that the immense logistical operation, cost, and inconvenience that comes from planning and coordinating a lockdown of a large city like Hamburg becomes worthwhile.

On the bright side, until now at least, all G20 leaders are scheduled to attend the meeting, and that means there is always the chance of a productive but unpredictable discussion taking place, such as at the 2009 G20 meeting hosted by ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown. And as anyone going to see Götterdämmerung knows – ‘it ain’t over until (Brunnhilde) sings’.

Image: Hugh Jorgensen

Hugh Jorgensen works as a Policy Advisor in International Relations, G20 / T20

One thought on “Could Hamburg signal the end of an era for the G20 as a global steering committee?

    […] amid the gathering doom and gloom, some of which was covered in this blog last week, there are a few points of light in the G20 agenda that should not be forgotten. Moreover, there is […]

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