If a metaphor could sum up last week’s G20 summit, it might be called the “Brownian motion”. In the early 19th century, the Scottish scientist Robert Brown observed pollen grains in water through a microscope and was struck by the continuous, jittery and random movements of molecules. His Brownian motion theory described perpetual, seemingly haphazard fluctuations.
The picture in Hamburg was certainly one of a world out of joint – and not just because of the violent anarchist protests. A wonderful article by Reuters described how these riots were watched with utter bewilderment by Syrian refugees housed in the city. “These people are crazy, I can’t believe my eyes!” said one, mystified by the level of rage in a “beautiful country” that had welcomed so many people fleeing war.
But the chaos on the streets was in the end less worrying than the diplomatic mess: indeed global governance went almost awol. Angela Merkel, German chancellor and host of the summit, perhaps captured this best when she spoke of a “period of unrest in the world”, and the need to make things “somewhat quieter”.
Arguably the biggest blow to that effort came with Donald Trump’s Warsaw speech, in which he tried to single-handedly redefine “the west” and centre it on a white ethnic nationalism with a strong Christian, traditionalist streak. Defending the principles of democracy, or upholding post-1945 and post-1989 international frameworks, do not feature in it. It’s not that Trump wants to dismantle the west, it’s that he wants to recast it as a bigoted and intolerant entity in which the legacy of the Enlightment is all but eradicated. Nato, yes, but with none of the values mentioned in the Atlantic charter.
No European leader was asked to comment on this speech at the G20, but be sure the Russian president will have paid close attention to it. Indeed, Trump’s twisted, anti-pluralistic vision sits perfectly alongside Vladimir Putin’s ideological priorities.
But this was just the first instalment of an increasingly erratic world scene. More Brownian motion was evident when the Europeans appeared to scramble for Chinese support against Trump. To be sure, Xi Jinping has been adept at casting his country as a defender of a rules-based multinational system. On the surface, this looks like the perfect antidote to Trump’s protectionism and disdain for UN conventions and international agreements.
But Xi’s opportunism hardly means he’s a reliable ally for Europe. And if Nobel peace prizewinner Liu Xiaobo’s fate is anything to go by, Xi would be hard-pressed to ever side with Europe’s understanding of individual freedoms.
The much scrutinised Trump-Putin encounter certainly appeared to end with a win for the Russian president. Putin capitalised on Trump’s haste to “accept” assurances that Moscow hadn’t meddled in US elections. A 135-minute discussion in Hamburg was more than enough to fortify the Putin regime’s narrative about restoring a bipolar world, with Russia and the US cast as equals.
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Likewise, headlines about Trump being isolated and confronted by the other 19 participants of the summit were striking. He did look like the odd man out, making eyes roll and seeming to draw drawing sarcastic comments, especially when he had his daughter Ivanka sit in for him at a meeting.
But much remains in flux. For one thing, compromises were forged for a convoluted G20 final statement. On climate, it’s true that Trump was given something of a dressing down, but the G20 document partly went his way by referring to the use of “fossil fuels”. And on trade, although the G20 warned against “protectionism”, it also recognised “the role of legitimate trade defence instruments”.
If anything, this was an admission that the anti-globalisation mood around the world cannot be ignored. It sent the message that open, free trade should come with safeguards, like reciprocity and the protection of strategic sectors. Against that backdrop, China’s hardball approach to trade may turn into more of a challenge for the Europeans than Trump’s instincts already have.
In fact, nothing was set in stone at this G20, nor perhaps could it be, in a world of unhinged competition and nationalist passions. The Trump-Putin meeting did look like a bromance in the making, but it was also notable that there was no indication of a “grand bargain” or a Yalta 2.0 under way.
To be sure, Russia will not have given up on its strategic calculus of carving out a sphere of influence in Europe. Nor are Trump’s intentions exactly clear. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that the many scandals plaguing his presidency make it difficult for him to hand Putin concrete concessions, even if he wished to. Trump’s weekend tweet cancelling plans for a joint US-Russia “cybersecurity centre” was a case in point.
In fact, Trump could well be paralysed. This offers Europeans some space, but hardly dispels the many uncertainties. The US retreat from Europe was already at play under Barack Obama, but Trump’s brand of ultra-conservative ideological engagement is more worrying. His Warsaw speech carried an apocalyptic vision of “survival” in the face of migration and Islam. It echoed the thinking of Europe’s far right, as well as Putin’s obsession with the EU’s supposed decadence.
Still, it is hard to know whether a political agenda of this sort will bring concrete policies, such as paving the way for a consolidated US-Russia axis of illiberalism. Trump remains a maverick, after all. And the crises in the Middle East, as well as the situation in Ukraine, hardly make for easy convergence in policies.
So there’s a global Brownian motion happening before our eyes. A lot is happening, but much of it looks absurd, and we are left counting the zig-zags and collisions. It might be that some changes of direction – such as a Europe-China grouping against the US – will deliver results. But it could also be that events will cancel most of this out.
Still, if there’s one thing this G20 will have made plain for a country like Britain, it is that pandering to Trump now comes with greater risks than before. Britain’s government seems to be reaching out to an America that is simply not there any more. Brexit means finding oneself alone, separate from a now reinvigorated European club – a molecule cast around by random colliding forces. If this G20 has had a useful lesson, perhaps that was it: that the world has gone haywire, and the words “take back control” have an empty ring.