When President Trump descended the stairs of Air Force One following his trip to Argentina and the G20 Summit, photographers and reporters were there to record his arrival. But the President was uncharacteristically silent about any successes or bothersome loose ends on the agenda at the annual gathering of nations.
The President’s perceived silence, suggested former U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, Dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and career diplomat, may be the result of domestic issues the President faces at home. “He goes to Buenos Aires in a weakened state,” said Hill, whose last posting was as President Obama’s Ambassador to Iraq. Hill also said that Trump’s rhetoric aimed at China and even at America’s closest allies followed the President to the summit.
One of the issues that has engulfed Trump, said Hill, were disclosures former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, shared with Robert Mueller, special counsel investigating Russian influence in the 2016 election.
An agreement to replace NAFTA---long a punching bag of this president---was signed by the U.S., Canada and Mexico on the first day of the summit. But its signing did not produce uniform declarations of progress. All three sides have quibbled over some of its wording. Legislatures from all three countries still must approve it. The agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada agreement, covers more than a trillion dollars’ worth of trade.
The President has said that if Congress does not approve the deal, he will veto NAFTA in six months. But with a new Democratic majority in the House and many of its members not sold or, in the case of newly elected members, unfamiliar with details of the new agreement, approval could prove to be problematic.
More immediately, said Hill, a new and more productive tack by the President would be adopting a more thoughtful approach to America’s relationships with our two closest neighbors. The President, said Hill, “has tweeted himself into a corner” with negative comments about these relationships. There is no benefit to Trump’s unveiled offensive toward Mexico and Canada, said the former ambassador, suggesting he is “shooting himself in the foot,” especially on NAFTA. “Would we like to be treated like that,” he asked. There doesn’t seem to be attention being paid to “long-term relationships” with the two nations, said Hill.
Another major trade matter was diffused at the summit on Saturday night. Trump and China President Xi found a degree of middle ground on trade issues between the two countries. Only a last-minute compromise averted what might have turned into a political and economic mud fight between the two nations.
Trump agreed to delay raising tariffs from 10 to 25 percent on $200 billion in Chinese goods. China agreed to up its purchases of agricultural, energy and industrial goods from the U.S. to reduce a growing trade deficit. Trump called it “an incredible deal.” The Chinese were less effusive. China, in what it called a gesture of goodwill, also pledged to label fentanyl, a highly addictive drug and a serious factor in America’s opioid epidemic, a controlled substance.
Both nations agreed to set a 90-day deadline to reach a more comprehensive agreement. But the President warned China that if there is no agreement by then that he would follow through on his promise to raise tariffs to the 25 percent level.
The G20 Summit brings together 19 of the world’s industrial and economic powers along with the European Union. The nations discuss everything from reforms to world trade to climate change along with a handful of serious sidebar issues affecting them all.
At meeting’s end, 19 of the G20 nations signed a document indicating support for the Paris Climate Accord. The United States did not. In keeping with a campaign promise, President Trump had earlier ordered the U.S. to withdraw from the Paris agreement. The accord sets targets for the reduction of carbon emissions to fight global warming while keeping global temperatures under two degrees centigrade.
Two other issues that were either discussed in extreme privacy or not at all were Russian aggression in the Black Sea in which three Ukrainian vessels were seized and as many as 20 sailors were detained. Several of the sailors were said to be injured. “I would certainly be concerned with Russia’s Ukraine policy,” said Hill. Trump initially scheduled a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin but cancelled it before landing in Buenos Aires. The pair, however, did meet informally at the G20.
The other matter was the October murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi Arabian government under orders of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. President Trump has so far refused to condemn Saudi Arabia or the crown prince for Khashoggi’s death despite the CIA’s confirmation that bin Salman ordered it. It is reported the President and the crown prince did have what the White House called a “friendly meeting” in Buenos Aires.
While the President was restrained in pushing ahead with the two leaders, Putin and bin Salman seemed extraordinarily effusive before cameras sharing an enthusiastic handshake before one meeting.
Scheduled meetings with other world leaders, including South Korea’s Moon Jae-in and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were downgraded from ‘formal’ to what are called ‘pull-asides.’
Following G20 meetings, Presidents usually return with a list of tangible accomplishments or, in other cases, plans for them. That was not the case this time. Hill believes this President’s past behavior, including his willful disdain for protocol, has hamstrung the country. “I think at first countries looked at this situation and tried to engage and figure a way forward,” he said. “Recently they think this is a person who doesn’t seem to change.”