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Balance of Power: So What Happened At the G-20?

Donald Trump’s America is going its own way.

That’s the only possible conclusion after a G-20 summit that did little to paper over the yawning differences between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Germany’s Angela Merkel, who chaired the talks, did her best with a carefully crafted communique. But the outcome was an awkward text that bristled with unresolved tensions.

On trade, leaders bought themselves a few weeks to resolve a simmering dispute over steel production — but new language in the communique seemed to increase the chance that it will ultimately end in a trade war.

On climate, a sentence recognizing Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord sat uncomfortably next to a call to use fossil fuels “more cleanly.”

It’s true, the atmospherics were better than the G-7’s meeting in Sicily in May. Trump actually smiled, and the only tut-tutting came when he let his daughter Ivanka briefly sit in his seat at the table.

But two summits into Trump’s presidency, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that things have changed, maybe permanently.

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Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping at the first session of the G20 summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
Photographer: Pool/Getty Images Europe

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The communique | Sherpas worked into the small hours to cobble together a communique that all G-20 leaders could sign up to. The result is a document that, at times, doesn’t even try to resolve the contradictions between America First and the rest of the world. That said, there are some new areas of common cause, especially on the empowerment of women. Here’s a line-by-line analysis of the communique.

Hamburg burns | Germany’s second-largest city was rocked by some of the worst violence the country has seen in years as anarchists ripped through the city over two nights, looting stores and burning cars. That said, a peaceful march of more than 50,000 went off successfully on Saturday as a coalition of trade unions, left-wing parties and anti-globalization activists slammed Merkel. “The G-20 is an anachronism and this summit especially is a fiasco,” Katja Kipping, co-chairwoman of the Left party, told the crowd.

Merkel’s moment | With German elections less than three months away, Merkel had more than most to lose if the G-20 descended into acrimony. In the end, the fragile compromise allows her to claim a victory while keeping her distance from Trump, a double bonus as she seeks a historic fourth term. She even got a cheer from the audience when she arrived at a gala concert on Friday night with other world leaders. 

Daughter, aide or both? | Trump seems to take delight at blurring the lines between the family business and White House business. He took that to a new level today when his daughter took his place during a session on Africa. Trump had stepped away when Ivanka took his place, slotting in between China’s Xi Jinping and Britain’s Theresa May. Later, Merkel said she saw no problem because Ivanka was “part and parcel” of the U.S. delegation.

Ivanka Trump looks on as Angela Merkel arrives for the morning working session on the second day of the G20 economic summit on July 8, 2017 in Hamburg.
Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe

A looming trade war | The G-20 ultimately did little to dispel fears that Trump will slap a tariff on steel imports at some point in the next few months. While the U.S. agreed to boilerplate language in the communique about the dangers of protectionism, it also got a sentence that recognized the right of members to apply “legitimate trade defense instruments” to address “unfair trade practices.” 

Macron’s zeal | In public, Emmanuel Macron was all buddy-buddy with Trump, popping up at his side at almost every point to exchange some banter, nod seriously or pat him on the shoulder. But French officials say it was very different behind closed doors. It was Macron who pushed most forcefully for communique language that highlighted American isolation on climate change. And at one point Macron even pulled out his iPhone to explain to the American delegation how global trade works. With friends like these...

G-20 unplugged | Even the world’s leaders struggle to stay on script all the time. On Friday, Merkel was caught rolling her eyes as Vladimir Putin wagged his finger at her to stress a point. During one of the sessions, Trump supposedly folded his arms and scowled as Xi Jinping talked. And on the final afternoon, Justin Trudeau surprised a group of women when he put on some shades, sat at a reception desk and said “Welcome to Hamburg. How can I help you?”

And finally... Just when you thought you’d had enough of photos showing Trump’s awkward handshakes with world leaders, along comes Vladimir Putin.  “It’s an honor to be with you,” the president said, extending his hand to Putin at the beginning of their long-anticipated first meeting. The image was eerily familiar to fans of TV show House of Cards and the moment another U.S. president met his Russian counterpart.

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