As I have written in the past, we can make too much of the significance of the G-20 (or earlier G-8) process and leader meetings. It is not, as some commentators have effusively labeled it, the "committee that rules the world." Still, the annual gatherings of the heads of state of 20 developed and developing nations holds powerful symbolic importance and influence. It does set the tone for international economic relations in a given year. And it can signal both future areas of international cooperation – and conflict.
This year, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the (beleaguered) host for the Hamburg G-20, it was President Donald Trump whose presence dominated the headlines. While there is much to analyze from the summit, trade is the subject here. Trade and climate (the Paris agreement, specifically) were juxtaposed from the outset. Given the tensions and turmoil both within the G-20 sessions, as well as outside on the streets of Hamburg, clearly Merkel decided that she did not want to risk rupture by isolating Trump on both issues. Thus, while the G-20 members threw down the gauntlet on the climate issue – with the G2-0 adopting a 19-1 stance that Paris was "irreversible," with the U.S. as lone dissenter – on trade, Merkel opted to push for compromise.
The result may have been a palliative for G-20 member relations, but make no mistake: The "compromise" on trade represents a damaging retreat from the G-20's clear and simply stated stand against protection and support for a rules-based multilateral trading system. It was on trade that the Trump's Sherpas dug in their heels and were most tenacious – with substantial results. Merkel ruefully acknowledged this doggedness when she lamented that trade talk is still difficult as "every word is weighed there."