While the NATO meeting and G7 last month were shocking to many, this G20 just did something that everyone kind of expected: Trump handed over leadership of the international order to pretty much anyone who would take it. Any other Republican President would have probably tried to develop a G20 statement on North Korea, but that would have required work and a view that international cooperation is a good thing. There are few constants when it comes to Trump: he is always lazy, incurious, paranoid (no staff for the meeting with Putin because of leak paranoia), hostile to cooperation, and racist.
America First does indeed mean America alone (sorry, McMaster but your spin doth suck). When talking to my IR colleagues, we have a hard time figuring out if this has happened before: that the leader of the international order surrenders their role voluntarily. The closest example would be the British after World War I, and that was largely driven by their inability, not a matter of disinterest or hostility. Instead, the Trump Administration is giving up US influence (Make American Less Great) and getting nothing in exchange. Opposing TPP meant the effort to contain China economically fails without getting anything for it. Wandering around the G20 with everybody looking to other partnerships means the US will now be at a trade advantage. The EU-Japan deal combined with finally enacting CETA (Canada-EU) means that goods of those involved will face lower barriers than American goods, which means American companies are now disadvantaged. Again, not good.
We saw two domestic dynamics become international ones:
- the donut theory of working around Trump. Just as Trudeau has been working every angle in US politics to protect American interests, most of the G20 put their efforts towards working around Trump rather than the US leading.
- manipulate Trump as best you can. His aides do it, so why shouldn't foreign leaders? My only concern is that the successful Canadian campaign will eventually get noticed (they aren't shy about taking credit) and then lead to Trump acting out.
On the bright side for the Canadians, Trudeau did very well. While Conservatives in Canada don't like the selfies and photo ops at home, having a Canadian leader who is very popular around the world is a good thing for the country. Especially in the age of Trump but even before that, Canada was getting more notice and attention at this fora because Trudeau is well liked (I hate the Canada is back lingo because Harper engaged in much cooperation even if he was not as enthused about multilateralism). This means that Canada is at the big table most of the time these days rather than left at the kid's table or on the outside looking in. And it becomes easier for countries to make, ratify and implement agreements with Canada since their leaders don't have to worry about seeing standing next to Trudeau--very much the opposite. Indeed, we shall see over the next couple of years, politicians avoiding Trump and attacking him for domestic political purposes (see Macron, Merkel), but the opposite for Trudeau. Being next to Trudeau is good for domestic politics in many countries. This means, yes, Trudeau is a Canadian asset. What this government does with this increase in "soft power" remains to be seen and the opposition can surely oppose, but the increased heft is a good thing if you think that Canada should make a difference in the world.
So, a good G20 for Canada and an awful one for the US. Make Canada Great and make America less relevant. Woot?