Why you should care
The world’s biggest summits are turning into speed-dating meetups for global leaders.
When leaders of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and Canada meet in the picturesque French seaside town of Biarritz later this week, the official reason for their gathering will be the G-7 summit. But for many of them, the focus will be on bilateral meetings with a bombastic politician boasting a peculiar mop of bright hair — not U.S. President Donald Trump, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’ll parley with his global counterparts for the first time since taking office last month.
But the focus on those one-on-one meetings reflects a broader, growing pattern: Major summits are increasingly serving less as gatherings of world leaders hoping to forge an international consensus and more as a space for speed dating among those leaders as they seek critical bilateral deals. Look no further than June’s G-20 summit in Osaka. There, Trump’s deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to pause their trade war was the highlight of the event. In all, Trump had 10 bilateral meetings in Osaka, compared to eight in 2018. The highlight of the 2017 G-20 summit? Trump’s infamous meet-and-greet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their first since the 2016 presidential elections that Moscow tried to influence.
Trump is hardly alone. Xi held eight bilateral meetings at the Osaka summit, though the number fell far short of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 17 and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 19. For India, the centerpiece of Modi’s visit to Japan was his meeting with Trump, who is also engaged in a tariff war with New Delhi. So much so that India hosted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo days before the Osaka summit to prepare for the meeting.
In June, Xi visited Kyrgyzstan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization — comprising China, Russia, Central Asian republics, India and Pakistan — and Tajikistan for a summit of another regional body, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures. But Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Hanhui told reporters that bilateral relations with the two host nations were the president’s priorities on those trips. Meanwhile, ahead of Modi’s visit to New York in September for the U.N. General Assembly, India’s foreign office is engaged in negotiations with the State Department — trying to lock down a bilateral meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the global summit.
The multilateral machinery isn’t working as well as it used to.
Hal Brands, professor of global affairs, Johns Hopkins University
This growing emphasis on bilateral meetings at larger summits makes sense, say experts, at a time the consensus-building nature of multilateral groupings is crumbling. On the other hand, consider the fact that the hiatus in the trade war that Trump and Xi agreed to in Osaka directly affected more people than the sanitized, acceptable-to-all statement all 20 countries hammered out together.
“The multilateral machinery isn’t working as well as it used to,” says Hal Brands, a professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University.
World leaders have met their counterparts one-on-one on the sidelines of multilateral summits for decades. But the summits were fundamentally about forming a consensus — whether global, regional or between a group of nations with common aims — on a shared approach or, in the case of the U.N., creating international laws.
With growing unilateralism by major nations, say experts, the purpose of these summits now often stands defeated. Take the G-20, which started regular meetings of leaders from member countries in the aftermath of the 2008 recession to build a united response to the economic crisis. In Osaka, India refused to sign onto a part of the grouping’s joint communiqué on data-sharing. Or look at the G-7, which used to be the G-8 until Russia was thrown out following its annexation of Crimea. That expulsion was meant to demonstrate that the grouping stood united against Moscow’s unilateralism. Yet the defining image of last year’s G-7 summit was that of various world leaders, seemingly frustrated, standing while talking to a seated Trump in a bid to convince him to end his — unilateral — simultaneous tariff wars with multiple nations.
The U.S. under Trump has also consistently rejected parts of multilateral joint statements pertaining to the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement. And China under Xi has ensured that the East Asia Summit — a grouping including Southeast Asian nations, the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand — only makes anodyne references to “freedom of navigation,” even as it tries to gobble up disputed parts of the South China Sea.
All of this is partly because “there’s much more potential for shifts in foreign policies based on domestic politics,” says Geoffrey Gertz, a global economy and development fellow at the Brookings Institution. That, in turn, “heightens the importance of individual leaders at these international summits,” he adds.
So if the only big agreements from these summits emerge from bilateral meetings, should these pull-asides formally be given pride of place — and the summits themselves relegated to a lower status? In some ways, major groupings are recognizing this shift in what leaders look for from summits. Until 2015, the G-7 only occasionally invited leaders from nonmember nations — usually developing countries — to its main summits. Over the past five years, each G-7 summit has also had at least six world leaders in addition to those from the grouping, increasing the number of bilateral meetings possible for each president or prime minister. Last year’s summit in Canada had 12 additional world leaders, including those from the Marshall Islands, Norway, Argentina and Bangladesh. This year, Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will join the G-7 in Biarritz.
But experts caution against viewing multilateral summits as a waste of time. Sure, actors like Trump, Johnson and Modi may be shaking up the international order. Yet that’s precisely what makes these gatherings even more important, according to Gertz, who says getting leaders in a room to air their differences is a key part of diplomacy. “At least then, countries have better awareness of where other countries stand,” he says. “And avoiding misperceptions in international politics is hugely important.”
Meanwhile, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton has made America’s priorities for the coming G-7 summit clear with a visit to London earlier this month for talks with Johnson. Trump will reportedly meet Johnson in Biarritz before he meets any other leader — including the host, French President Emmanuel Macron. Bolton has said that Washington could sign a trade deal with London “very quickly” after it leaves the European Union. “It’s off to a roaring start,” Bolton said about the relationship between the two leaders. Expect more of that when Trump and Johnson meet. Nevermind the G-7.