Consensus or Chaos in the G20 Communiqué?

29th November 2018

By Scott Squires

Consensus or Chaos in the G20 Communiqué?

Ahead of any diplomatic summit, staffers, organizers and aides put in the countless hours of thankless grunt work necessary to make international diplomacy happen. These superheroes of international relations work overtime to manage competing interests and produce policy documents that not only make their superiors look good, but help build consensus that ensures international cooperation can continue.

This week, “sherpas”— staffers that work to guide delegates toward a successful summit — have been working to produce the final communiqué for the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit, perhaps the most high-profile international diplomacy event in the world. Their job is to ensure that the event produces a document that outlines the shared principles of all attending countries, and one that all countries can sign in good faith.

But sometimes, there’s a communication breakdown. And like a good Led Zeppelin song, diplomatic talks can also break down into a cacophony of arrhythmic and disparate voices, shouting over one another in a chaotic din.

That’s what happened last week at another international conference: the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. APEC is an event that rarely makes headlines. But this year, for the first time in the summit’s 25-year history, leaders were unable to issue a communiqué, citing continued disagreement on cross-Pacific trade between the U.S. and China.

While Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said after the APEC debacle that the two giants were close to resolving their differences, it’s still unclear how relations between the two countries will shake out at this weekend’s G20 event.

The concern is that a similar communication breakdown may occur, entrenching the world’s two largest economies even deeper in their self-inflicted and obstinate tariff war, and further upending the rest of the global economy.

What’s the big deal about a non-binding document?

The G20 communiqué is not a treaty under international law, nor is it expected that the principles outlined in the document will become domestic policy. Think of it more like a “memorandum of understanding:” a non-binding multilateral agreement that says all the signatories are more or less on the same page.

And while the document is mostly just a symbolic gesture of cooperation, communiqués are important. They are key pieces of diplomacy that signify the efforts global leaders will take to move their domestic and foreign policies in a direction that is in step with the international zeitgeist.

The trouble is, when some don’t want to play nicely with everyone else (we’re looking at you, Donald), and consensus falls apart, everyone begins to claim that they are getting the short end of the stick.

What can we expect in this year’s G20 communiqué?

Despite swirling rumors last week that progress on the G20 communiqué had come to a standstill, Argentine government officials have said they are confident a communiqué will be signed at the summit. That doesn’t mean that there are no hang-ups.

Based on a draft copy of the document leaked to the Financial Times last week, this year’s communiqué will not include any language specifically critical of trade protectionism. The draft document, the FT reports, calls on countries to “recognize the importance of the multilateral trading system,” and “work to keep markets open and ensure a level playing field.” But the language in the draft communiqué is intentionally vague on fighting trade protectionism and levying unilateral trade tariffs.

Consider this a loss for the G20, an organization that was founded on a free trade agenda, and one that was forged on international cooperation to lift the global economy out of the 2008 financial crisis.

It’s a clear indication that the United States and China have not yet resolved their differences. While that doesn’t mean that things can’t be patched up at the event, the work of mending global trade relations will come down to Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Bumps in the road:

At a recent press briefing, Argentine sherpa Pedro Villagra Delgado cited three areas of disagreement: climate change, steel, and migration.

  • Climate Change: Any language surrounding climate goals agreed upon in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement would be anathema to U.S. policy under the Trump administration. Since pulling the United States out of the agreement last year, the Trump government has toed the line of climate change denial. With the Paris Agreement ratified by 184 parties — including all 19 other members of the G20 —  the U.S. is drastically out of step with the rest of the world.
  • Steel: While the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) will be finalized on the sidelines of the G20, lingering disagreements over steel tariffs are also holding up the communiqué. While re-negotiating NAFTA, the U.S. and Canada began a trade spat over the high-tensile building material, and after the U.S. levied a 25 percent tariff on steel imports earlier this year, Canada responded in kind. However, Canadian demand for steel is sputtering. Domestic producers are now concerned that losing the U.S. steel market may drive many Canadian steel companies out of business.
  • Migration: Finally, one of the touchiest subjects this year will be migration, and a number of G20 countries are likely to object to pointed language establishing a need for progressive immigration policies. As the U.S., UK, Italy, Mexico, and other G20 countries deal with mass migration movements resulting from violence, climate change, or lack of economic opportunity, the summit will likely stay silent on the plight of 258 million displaced people around the world.

Other Argentina-related announcements:

  • Thawing UK-Argentine relations: As the Argentine-British relationship warms, Argentine President Mauricio Macri is expected to meet with British PM Theresa May. The two will likely announce regular commercial flights between Cordoba and the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands. This is an important step in repairing relations between the countries, who fought a war over the islands in 1982.
  • A mountain of Argentina-China deals: According to Argentina’s Ambassador to China, the two countries are expected to sign around 30 separate agreements at the G20. Some of these will likely include: a finalized currency swap agreement, which will shore up Argentina’s Central Bank reserves by expanding Argentina’s credit line to $18.7 billion dollars; finalized agreements on infrastructure projects, including final announcements on energy projects including the Atucha III nuclear power plant; and a number of bilateral trade agreements, including agreements on Argentine beef exports to China as well as other soy and grain deals.
Scott Squires

Scott Squires a journalist for Reuters in Buenos Aires. He holds a dual-Master's Degree in Global Policy Studies and Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.