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The New Role of the G20: Safeguarding Global Governance from a Revisionist America

Tristen Naylor, G7 and G20 Research Groups; Lecturer in Diplomatic Studies, University of Oxford
July 6, 2017

Under the Trump administration, the United States has not only stepped back from its position of global leadership, but now actively plays a spoiler role in the governance agenda. This particularly holds true for the most critical global issues, climate change and trade protectionism chief among them. Indeed, what was most remarkable about this year's G7 communiqué was how it articulated just how far apart the United States now finds itself from its traditional, like-minded allies, forcing an unprecedented paragraph in the Taormina communiqué in which the group failed to adopt a unanimous position on the Paris Agreement and forcing the G7 to abandon its long-held commitment to "resist all forms of protectionism."

This new revisionist role for the United States means that global governance is left without its strongest champion. It also means that reaching any agreements on the most important global issues that are not watered-down steps backward at this year's G20 summit in Hamburg are far more difficult, if not altogether unlikely. Instead of being able to make substantive progress on the global agenda, the G20 instead needs to take a rear-guard action to shore up the status quo as much as possible in the face of Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy. Despite the platitudes that will inevitably accompany the release of the G20's communiqué at the end of the summit, there is unlikely to be much in the document for the leaders to celebrate. Progressive strides are unlikely — success at this summit ought to be measured merely by how well the group is able to buttress the global governance project.

The key issues to watch for in the G20 communiqué will be those in which the obvious successors to American leadership seek to play the predominant role, the European Union and China chief among them. Doing so will yield a clearer idea of what course we can expect global governance to take. Particularly key in this respect will be the G20's statement on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (and, closely related, the G20's positions on its partnership with Africa, the empowerment of women and the improvement of food security). Also critical will be the degree to which the G20 recommits to the multilateral architecture, as this will give some indication of what positions of the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in a world in which their traditional guarantor has abdicated.

The G20 leaders will agree on the need to fight terrorism, promote economic growth and improve employment. And they will agree on the need to fight disease, improve the financial sector and better international tax cooperation. This is all low-hanging fruit as far as declarations go. What they are unlikely to agree on are the questions that at the Hangzhou Summit less than a year ago were settled: whether the world faces catastrophic climate change and what to do about it, and whether free trade benefits all. These are the big issues that underlie all others, and their reopening by the world's waning, last-remaining superpower precipitates a new crisis in global governance as it stumbles in its decline.

With the 2008 global financial crisis now in the past, the next crisis the G20 faces is one even farther reaching and more fundamental: how to weather the storm as America puts down the mantle of leadership.

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Tristen NaylorTristen Naylor, PhD, is the Lecturer in Diplomacy at the University of Oxford. His work examines status and group membership in international society. Previously, Dr Naylor was a visiting researcher at Sciences Po, Paris and the Lecturer in Politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He formerly served as a foreign policy analyst and advisor for the Government of Canada.


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