The G20 Summit in Argentina was, like the rest, a farce. Throughout history, people of influence have developed alternative structures to find ways round things. The G20 is yet another attempt by world leaders to subvert democratic control of their actions by saying that, if WE decide something at a meeting so prestigious that the public will always be excluded, it must be alright. This is despite the fact that the fundamental values of democracy say that something is only valid if it is accepted as such by the people, making an informed choice.
In the eighteenth century rich people started drinking large amounts of coffee , as his was not because they liked the stuff particularly, but because the coffee houses where it was sold were the places all the illicit business was done.
In the days when everything belonged to the crown, unless some special charter had been given, deals done in these coffee houses enabled independent traders and financiers to keep all the profits for themselves. Lloyds of London is one of the institutions which largely owes its existence to these coffee houses, and conducted much of its business through them.
The G20 is a modern coffee house. Far from making decisions which drive the global economy, it is a place where world leaders can show off in public, and do side deals, often political rather than economic in nature, in private.
If these deals are analysed by national legislatures, holes may be found in them. But they are generally signed off before then, and elected representatives left to deal with the consequences later, if they ever get to see all the minute detail of these agreements.
The only reason it is the G20 rather than the previous or G7 was that a number of “emerging economies” were included after the financial crisis. They weren’t included before because the big guys thought their concerns were different, and they could sort everything out themselves.
Only after the big guys messed up, and realised that these “emerging economies” might topple them, did they buy them off by including them in the G20. These are, of course, the same people who insist that market forces are sacred. They should therefore believe that the G20 has no need to exist, as the market on its own will determine from minute to minute which are the top performing economies, and influence how important decisions will be made through the trade process itself, not restrictive agreements.
We never really know what goes on at G20 summits, because the ostensible business of them is so technical and the real business is so secret. But this one did have an opportunity to address an issue which has emerged, and it has done so without saying a word about it. This in itself indicates the agenda being pursued, and whichever side you are on, it is not a very edifying one.
Whoever it isn’t
In 1974, beset by industrial action designed to change government policy, UK Prime Minister Edward Heath called an election on the slogan “Who governs?” The election produced no majority, meaning that the electorate answered by saying “Whoever it should be, it isn’t you”.
G20 has highlighted that, as in foreign affairs, the US is in decline and the rest of the world is letting that happen without offering anything better to replace it. That is not a good prospect for most people, but battle lines have been drawn.
The US is being exploited because it can be, isolated because it can be, and the rest are not going to blindly support its claims to hegemony. They may not know what comes next, but at the moment, they no longer care.
Like the old coffee house patrons, they now have enough money and connections to subvert the official channels, and can make more by continuing to behave in this way. Eventually their supposed superior, the US, will have to catch up with them from a position of weakness, accepting their rules because no one takes any notice of their own.
Protection from the protectors
Donald Trump did go to Argentina, but made a big show out of not meeting Vladimir Putin, even though such a meeting did apparently take place. He explained this by saying it was a protest against the Russian seizure of Ukrainian sailors, though he made clear in his explanation that he apparently had no idea what had actually happened, or why he was objecting to it.
It is more likely however that he was warned to steer clear of Putin because the noose is tightening around his neck over his alleged business dealings with Moscow – not because they existed, but because he side stepped their existence and extent, and who was involved. Now his former attorney Michael Cohen has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about these dealings Trump needs to keep as far away from Russia as possible, guilty or not.
Consequently the rest of the world has ignored Trump and his posturing. Look at the faces of Enrique Pena Nieto and Justin Trudeau when Trump describes them as his “great friends” when announcing a new trilateral trade deal. They are abiding by the necessity of working with him, but giving no credence to what he is actually saying.
This can be usefully compared with the now-notorious “handshake” between Putin and Crown Prince Bin Salman at the same summit. But, as a matter of fact, they are not supporting each other by making these gestures (they are on opposing sides in various Middle East conflicts). They are saying that if they want to talk to each other, they will, because they no longer care what the US might think about it.
Come in Peace, Leave in Pieces
Bin Salman (or MBS, as he is called in US political circles with disturbing familiarity) is a pariah at the moment due to his apparent ordering of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The West has nevertheless stuck with him despite longstanding concerns over Saudi human rights abuses
Angela Merkel recently announced that Germany will stop supplying Saudi Arabia with arms in protest at the Khashoggi murder, but this has no meaning. The Saudis have their favoured terrorist organisations, and that is where most of the arms sold to them actually go. They will simply acquire arms through the illegal mechanisms established and controlled by the US and its Western allies, as the balance sheets of the German companies who are now prevented from supplying these arms legally will show each quarter.
Trump has refused to cut ties with Saudi Arabia because a lot of US defence jobs will allegedly be put at risk by this action. He claims that by doing this he is protecting US jobs, and therefore continuing to Make America Great Again. But the other G20 leaders know he is doing exactly the opposite, because they have done the same in their own countries.
When different economic thinking prevailed, creating jobs was the norm, however that was financed. Many of the policies adopted derived from the ideas and political actions of John Maynard Keynes, who is now reviled in official economic circles by graduates who may never have had the opportunity to attend university, and get these qualifications, without the general increase in living standards generated by these policies.
However one of the downsides of the Keynesian trick was that governments began feeling that they had to support uncompetitive industries no matter what, because not doing so would mean mass unemployment and deprivation in parts of their countries dependent on them. Coal and steel producers, for example, were often supported by state subsidies now declared illegal simply to keep people in jobs.
This may have been a noble ambition, but ultimately stigmatised those people and the places where they lived. When the subsidies weren’t worth it any more the jobs went anyway. But so much effort had been put into retaining the old jobs for the sake of it that the newly unemployed and their localities couldn’t move on.
All that was left with the same old workers with same the old skills, and the same ones which are no longer useful; no matter how much you retrained people, few wanted to employ rather elderly people who had been cast aside by an unprofitable industry, when they could attract “untainted” new staff they could train more quickly at dirt cheap prices.
Trump hasn’t been able to revive his own heavy industries, and faced with massive layoff in the auto industry. He once promised to, or a least to provide alternatives anyone wants for people the economy no longer wants. Still he doesn’t understand that supporting unprofitable industries for the sake of it is what made those people unemployable and their localities untouchable.
But the rest of the G20 know. They are happy to let him get on with it, knowing that for the moment they can simply do as they do to fill the void, and argue about leadership later.
Your model, our building
As ever, the Argentina summit was met with protests from people who feel the G20 is exploiting Third World countries, eroding living standards, destroying the environment, supporting unsavoury regimes and practically everything else. It is easy to blame multinational monsters for everything because it is difficult, by their nature, to understand what they do, as the EU has found. Thus, these protests would exist whatever the G20 did, and are not an index of its worth or values.
But what demonstrates its worth and so called values is how it treats its leading members. If the G20 is what it says it is, the US should be leading the way, as most of the economic and political thinking currently in vogue derives from US models, not the European post-war reconstruction models which dominated in the Keynesian period.
The G20 members should be tailoring their needs and ambitions to what the US wants. Instead, they are sidelining it and waiting for it to come down to their level.
Donald Trump has said several times that he doesn’t believe in climate change. Some scientists agree with him, though most do not. But he is using this disbelief to promote his fantasy that the US could reinvent all its old heavy industrial jobs if it wasn’t for these pesky foreigners and their anti-American ideas.
If Trump could do this, he really would make America great again as there is much less competition in these sectors than there used to be. But the rest of the G20 continue to defy him, by reaching their own agreements which meet their own needs.
Ignoring carbon emission targets would make Trump many friends in the developing world, where the energy industry provides many decent paying jobs for locals. If he picked a fight with the rest of the G20 over this, he could achieve a distinct foreign relations coup and undo some of the fundamental damage the US has done to itself, whilst both the US and its newly genuine friends still professed theoretical respect for climate change targets, in principle.
But the rest of the G20 are ignoring this potential threat to themselves. They are pressing ahead with the Paris Agreement, which will inevitably involve trying to force lesser countries, not rich enough to set the agenda, to cut emissions and also biofuel income, and many jobs with them.
This non-US initiative should drive the affected countries into the arms of the US, and help it recapture genuine global leadership. When you expand from eight members to twenty, at least twelve of your members don’t want this. But they can do it, and are, and ultimately it is the US which will have to alter the rules to reflect reality, as that reality is higher than the principles it claims to support.
Nobody wants themselves
The current situation in the G20 is that described in the old children’s counting song, “Ten Green Bottles”, though there are actually twenty.
If one green bottle should accidentally fall, there will still be nineteen green bottles on the wall. The wall will still be there, the bottles will still be green, and the one which fell off will be out of the picture, and have to be picked up and repaired before it can rejoin its comrades.
There are twenty bottles because that is what the US wanted. They are all green because the US wanted that too. But if the US falls off, they can survive very well without it, and eventually change colour, and decide for themselves how many of them there should be, and who holds the keys to becoming a bottle.
No one will care about the bottle which has fallen off. Of all the bottles on the wall, the US is doing its best to ensure it is the one that falls, when theoretically it should be the last remaining. But the others are singing the same old tune, merely changing the words as they go, and that in itself may be enough to give the US a final push to the ground.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”