G20 Summit Kicks Off in Buenos Aires

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President Trump and other world leaders have arrived in Buenos Aires for the 2018 G20 Leaders’ Summit. As the summit starts, there are a number of subplots worth watching over the course of the next few days. The recent clash between Ukrainian and Russian ships in the Black Sea region, concerns about whether or not the US-China trade war will escalate, and the continuing blowback of the Khashoggi Murder are three of the issues G20 leaders will be contending with.

Kicking off the summit was an announcement that the United States, Canada, and Mexico have completed and signed a trade agreement. The United States, Mexico, and Canada Agreement (USMCA) will replace NAFTA. When President Trump took office restructuring or even replacing NAFTA was a top priority. After two years of negotiations, and some arm-twisting, the new agreement has become a reality.

The fate of President Trump’s planned meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Buenos Aires is uncertain right now. Trump announced he was canceling the meeting in response to tensions between Russia and Ukraine. The Kremlin, however, has said nothing about the talk having been cancelled, leaving the fate of the meeting up in the air.

Interaction between Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be closely watched this weekend as well. The two leaders will meet during the summit, raising hopes that the ongoing trade war between the world’s two largest economies can be deescalated, and the souring relations between China and the United States reversed. A ceasefire on tariffs would be especially welcomed, although one is unlikely to be reached this weekend. Trump views tariffs as leverage and an effective weapon. He will not be prepared to give it up so easily. The US-China relationship is complex, and a prime example of economic and geopolitical interests clashing head on.

It would seem, for the moment, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will receive a pass on the Khashoggi murder. The G20’s attention this weekend will be on the global economy, climate and energy concerns, and other similar issues. Khashoggi’s murder by Saudi agents at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul is a topic to be avoided and understandably so. The G20 is an economic club at its heart. As a general rule, dubious political matters are avoided at all costs, even though the global media would love nothing more than for Salman, and Saudi Arabia to receive a comeuppance of sorts in Buenos Aires.

Saturday 8 July, 2017 Update: Syrian Ceasefire Agreement Reached in Hamburg

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Out of the meeting between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit in Hamburg has come a somewhat unexpected brood: An agreement on a ceasefire in southern Syria. The ceasefire has come out of concerns about fighting spilling over Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Israel. Those two countries have been particularly alarmed over the expanding Iranian presence and involvement in the area. Jordan has been closely involved the negotiations geared towards bringing this deal to reality, which had been underway for some time before the final product was realized in Hamburg.

The parties involved in the ceasefire need to keep in mind that Syria has become a graveyard of ceasefire efforts in recent years. More than one has died shortly after being put into effect, largely because of outlawed factions such as Al Qaeda not going along with an agreement’s terms and deliberately disrupting it. Other times extraneous ceasefire terms were used by Russia to goad the pro-Western rebel groups into behavior that violated the said ceasefire.

There are still many questions that need to be answered about this one. This ceasefire is set to go into effect on Sunday at noon, Syrian time. It is unclear exactly what the enforcement guidelines will be, or who will be enforcing the terms. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that Russian military police will be the enforcers, however, US and Jordanian diplomats have disputed that, saying the issue has not yet been decided.

There is no predicting if this latest ceasefire will hold, though it does have some advantages that its predecessors did not. Foremost is that it mostly affects an area that is not the heart of the conflict. Southwestern Syria has experienced significantly less fighting than other parts of the country. A second leverage is the significance this ceasefire will have for Syria’s neighbors. This agreement is not just aimed at stopping a conflict between dueling Syrian groups. Jordan, and Israel stake a major claim in this ceasefire since it helps secure their borders with Syria. This point may help give the ceasefire added strength that its predecessors lacked.

In any event, this is a positive step forward to a more concrete agreement in the future. With the exception of perhaps the Syrian government, every other party involved in the Syrian conflict has grown weary of the fighting.  ISIS now on the ropes,  and the time has come for the major powers involved to take a hard look at the potential shapes a post-ISIS Syria can take.

Thursday 6 July, 2017 Update: Trump Arrives in Hamburg

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President Trump arrived in Hamburg a short while ago following a brief visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit scheduled to begin on 7 July in the northern German city. The president’s stay in Poland, while short, was productive and gave the world a preview of some talking points that he will likely bring up with other world leaders during the G20. The Poland visit also afforded us a glimpse at the evolving Trump foreign policy platform, and the geopolitical priorities for the United States. For the moment, North Korea’s ballistic missile progress tops the list.

Trump delivered an address in Poland before departing for Hamburg. In it, he reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO, and Article 5 but added that Europe does need to do more. He also railed against threats from radical Islamic terrorism, to Russia, and North Korea. Overall, the president sought to highlight the common ground between the US and Europe as a prelude to the G20 where the reception he receives could be markedly different from the warm, sincere greetings he received in Poland.

While Hamburg won’t be a politically hostile environment altogether for Trump, the environment could be rather chilly. Angela Merkel might be looking to seize the moment in Hamburg and attempt an ambush on him. With the EU locked in a dispute with Poland right now, the president’s visit there has undoubtedly ruffled some feathers in Brussels. Merkel, who’s personality differences with the American leader seem to be affecting her policy positions, will have the opportunity to sit vis-à-vis at the same table and hold constructive discussions. Or harangue him incessantly, if she chooses that route.

While speaking of vis-à-vis encounters, Trump and Vladimir Putin will be meeting for the first time ever at the event. The president will be walking a tightrope of not wanting to appear soft on the man who is widely believed to have orchestrated an attempt to influence a US election. With that, along with the issues flaring up between the US and Russia, Trump should be polite, yet firm.

 

 

Monday 3 July, 2017 Update: Trump, Poland and Why the EU is Worried

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President Trump’s upcoming visit to Poland ahead of the G20 Summit in Hamburg has made some European leaders uneasy. President Trump will be meeting with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, will deliver a major speech, and make an appearance at the Three Seas Initiative Summit. The visit comes at a particularly sensitive moment in Europe. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic have been embroiled in a standoff with the European Union over the EU’s mandated refugee quotas. The worry in Brussels is what consequences Trump’s visit to Poland could bring. Particularly, there is a great deal of anxiety bordering on fear that Poles will regard Trump in their country as a sign of support for the embattled nation. Deepening instability could result from that right when the EU is desperately attempting to forge solidarity across the continent.

The Three Seas Initiative is seen by Brussels as a move by Poland to expand its geopolitical influence beyond the EU. A worst-case scenario for the EU would be the Three Seas Initiative evolving into a federation of Central-Eastern European nations in the future. A federation effectively led by Warsaw. The concept is not new. Plans for a federation along those lines was explored by Poland following the end of World War I. The blueprint failed when Russia, and many Western European nations opposed it. Duda has invested tireless effort into rekindling the project and is likely banking on Trump’s influence and power to help it get off the ground.

The immediate worry on the part of the EU is the chance that the Poles will be emboldened by Trump’s appearance and Warsaw’s defiance will increase. Geopolitically, Poland and the United States have been forging closer ties recently. The populist anti-liberal order bent of Duda’s nationalist conservative government ties in well with the general platform that drove Donald Trump to victory in the US presidential election last November. Birds of a feather do indeed flock together, especially in the high stakes world of global politics. What comes from the visit to Poland remains to be seen, but the fact that EU is reacting with increasing concern tells us that it does not expect the end result to be anything good.

 

Friday 30 June, 2017 Update: 20017 G20 Summit Begins Next Week in Hamburg

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Next week’s G20 Hamburg summit could resemble a tawdry soap opera, or even a wrestling match in some regards given the levels of suspense, intrigue, and tension surrounding the meeting. For more than one G20 leader, the stakes will be high. Personal political futures could hinge on what transpires. This will not be a summit featuring great unity and solidarity. On the policy front, G20 summits have a history of the Western powers coming together and pushing nations like Russia, China, and India to follow their lead. In all likelihood, that will not be happening this time around.

The chasm between some European nations and the United States on policies could be too wide to overcome. President Trump threatened Germany, and China with punitive trade measures on steel. Berlin is concerned that the US will renege on its promise to fight protectionism. Then there is migration, where the respective policies of the European Union and the US are moving in opposite directions.

Another matter making some western European nations uneasy is President Trump’s planned visit to Poland before the G20 summit. Poland’s defiance towards Brussels has been a growing concern lately, and there is apprehension that Trump’s visit will only encourage Polish resistance, and efforts to carve out influence outside of the EU. When he arrives in Hamburg, Trump will meet with Vladimir Putin in person for the very first time. The two leaders will have much to talk about, from Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US election, to Syria’s future.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be the leader with the most to lose in Hamburg. Her ability to forge sensitive compromises between leaders with far different positions will be put to the test. Given the differences between the US and Germany on climate, migration, and trade, it’s difficult to expect Merkel and Trump to come to some sort of agreement. Trump is not the only foreign leader who Merkel has a strained relationship with at the moment. Putin, and Turkish President Erdogan, who will also be attending the G20, fall into the same category. It would be in Merkel’s best interest if she could make progress with at least one of them, especially with Merkel being in the midst of an election campaign herself.

Over the weekend, and into next week, the G20 and related issues will be discussed more.