Nearly two years into a world reordered by Trump, the globe has readjusted. Leaders of other major economic powers have learned — and accepted — they will not succeed in shifting Trump's views either by logical argument or by charm. So their goal is ...
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BUENOS AIRES — Donald Trump has issues. And the team of G-20 "sherpas" negotiating the joint statement to sum up the annual leaders' summit were more than happy to take note of them if it meant the explosive American president wouldn't blow up their work.
One of Trump's issues is the multilateral trading system that most other G-20 leaders cherish, but that he believes has long allowed other countries to take advantage of the United States.
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So at around 5 a.m. on Saturday morning, after nearly a week of intense negotiations, the sherpas wrote an awkward line into the fourth paragraph of their draft communique: "We also note current trade issues."
Trump also has issues with the Paris climate change accords. But rather than argue the point, 19 of the G-20 leaders used the document to reaffirm their commitment to fight global warming, and a separate paragraph was written laying out Trump's singular opposition.
"The United States reiterates its decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, and affirms its strong commitment to economic growth and energy access and security, utilizing all energy sources and technologies, while protecting the environment," they wrote.
The White House was thrilled. And the rest of the G-20 could hardly have been happier.
Nearly two years into a world reordered by Trump, the globe has readjusted. Leaders of other major economic powers have learned — and accepted — they will not succeed in shifting Trump's views either by logical argument or by charm. So their goal is to agree to disagree, to avoid taking offense even when Trump is offensive. In other words, the best way to protect the multilateral system is to let the Big Guy go his own way, even as they keep him at the table. That's what they did in Buenos Aires. And the G-20 lives on to reconvene in Osaka in 2019.
The Trump administration seemed particularly pleased with a provision in the communique calling for reform of the World Trade Organization — a goal shared by the European Union, in part because it believes a more robust WTO would force Trump himself to play by the rules.
"Today is a great day for the United States. The G-20 just adopted a communique by consensus," a senior White House official said in Buenos Aires, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It's a consensus that meets many of the U.S.'s biggest objectives. I think really the headline story is on trade reform. For the first time ever, the G-20 recognized the WTO is currently falling short of meeting its objectives and that it's in need of reform."
In other words, Trump may read the same lines in the communique differently than the other 19 leaders, but so what? He's on board.
"We also did a great job of promoting U.S. pro-growth policies," the White House official said. "We highlighted the pro-growth tax policies of the United States. We have language in the communique on the president's workforce development initiative, talking about how we need to re-skill workers to harness technologies and make the most of the modern economy."
"Finally, we had a paragraph where we specifically preserved and explained our position for why we're withdrawing from the job-killing Paris agreement," the White House officials said, adding: "I think across the board it was really a resounding success."
Other nations were more excited about the continued shared vision for a well-functioning rules-based system. The EU, in particular, triumphed in a line in the communique that stated, "We renew our commitment to work together to improve a rules-based international order that is capable of effectively responding to a rapidly changing world."
Trump, of course, is not always so big on working together.
An EU official described a sometimes tense negotiating process in the development of the communique, that involved a careful step by step process to make sure that Washington was on board at all times, and that serious tensions on trade between the U.S. and China did not derail the effort. The effort was helped by an experienced Canadian diplomat and a veteran Russian sherpa.
The EU official acknowledged some frustration over the way some big powers, including China and the U.S. under Trump, sometimes flout the rules. "It is an irritant," the official said.
"It was an issue for the US to say that there are trade tensions," the EU official said. "So you will see the sentence is a bit strange, 'We know there are trade issues.' It's not a very nice sentence. It was obtained at 5 in the morning."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel acknowledged that a decade after the first G-20 summit, the multilateral approach was facing severe threats, and did not necessarily provide all the answers.
Multilateralism "must be fought for," Merkel said. "But we are doing that. It’s gotten harder. The fact that Paris was created was a great moment, even though this great moment was not enough to solve the problem."
Still, she and other leaders hailed the summit as a success. Argentinian President Mauricio Macri said the communique proved the G20 to be “a common space for dialogue and working collaboratively."
French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been at sharp odds with Trump in recent weeks, boasted of collaborative success at the G-20.
"With Donald Trump, we really got an agreement," Macron said. "This G-20, these discussions that we have had allowed us to have consensus, and whatever disagreements may exist on certain subjects, to build a common path."
Speaking at his own news conference, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “The world is looking to the G-20 to address the big issues that we are facing and these are things that we have done in that communique and around the table.”
Early in his presidency, Trump openly groused about having to attend international summits. But White House aides said Trump has grown more confident on the world stage in recent months, having built relationships with foreign leaders and beefed up his knowledge of policy issues. Administration officials have followed suit, as they've learned how to go toe-to-toe with negotiators from other countries.
Similarly, world leaders and their top deputies have learned how to live with Trump. Gone are the days when the U.S. president's unorthodox foreign policy pronouncements prompted panic. Instead, foreign officials now remain calm, focus on areas of agreement and — most importantly — try find ways to get on Trump's good side.
There was perhaps no better example of the flattery factor than Japanese Prime Minister Shinzö Abe's praise of Republicans' performance in the recent midterm elections, despite the fact that the GOP lost the House.
“I’d like to congratulate you on your historic victory in the midterm election in the United States,” he told Trump in Buenos Aires.
The G-20 may also have benefited from the fact that Trump and the White House viewed a Saturday dinner meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the most important event in Argentina. In fact, senior aides paid little attention to the negotiations over the G-20 communique, leaving most of the work to lower-level officials.
In the final run-up to the Trump-Xi meeting, senior officials were seen bustling around the president's hotel, rushing to prep sessions. Though senior Chinese and U.S. officials had been discussing the contours of a potential trade deal for weeks, few knew exactly what would be decided until hours before the meeting.
But when it comes to surprises from Trump, the rest of the world now seems surprised only when there is no surprise.
Doug Palmer contributed reporting.
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