Saturday, March 18, 2017

European Officials at the G20 Grapple with a New American Trading Position: Beyond the Joint Communiqué

It is perhaps only natural---only human—for us to take ourselves and our produced artifacts too seriously. Diplomats and other government officials, for example, fret arduously over mere words. When those words are etched in governmental or treaty parchment, the effort is understandable. The flaw of excess is evident in all the time and effort that go into the joint communiques of international conferences and meetings. I submit that the real politic at such occasions is much more significant even if nothing shows from it for some time.
At the March 18, 2017 meeting of the Group of 20, which includes the E.U. and U.S., the joint statement “became an unlikely focus of controversy” issuing in “a tortured compromise stating, in effect, that trade is a good thing.”[1] I submit that the use of such language is spurious—certainly much less than the attendees and even their principals back home supposed. The real politic was instead that the U.S. was “overturning long-held assumptions about international commerce,” and such transformational change takes time even just to register in minds ensconced in the status quo. That is to say, the real shift in power would need to play out in actual negotiations on trade, rather than in how to word a meeting’s joint statement.

A European official, Wolfgang Schauble, perhaps straining at the meeting to understand the new American position. (source: NYT)

“We thought that it was very important for the communiqué to reflect what we discussed here,” Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, said at the time.[2] He added that the historical language was not relevant. I submit that neither was it important that the joint statement reflect what was actually discussed, for such discussions—laying out the initial bargaining positions for upcoming negotiations—had legitimate importance. Yet even such importance was only as “the first shots,” for the true importance lie in the arduous negotiations to come, for the tyranny of the status quo never gives up without a struggle. At that G20 meeting, the American government’s “lack of reverence for existing norms and treaties” was “particularly unsettling to the change-averse Europeans.”[3] It is precisely such a struggle that is so important—for real shifts in power must somehow be accommodated or defeated. In relative terms, the importance of what to hand to the press after an initial meeting is but a napkin dwarfed by the real politics underneath.
Therefore, we need not be distraught that the best the Group of 20 could come up with on that Saturday was this: “We are working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies.”[4] Such an obvious statement is worth only scant time. Much more important were efforts of the Europeans to understand—in the sense of comprehending—just what the new American perspective was, for something new that does not fit within the existing modus operendi takes effort to be understood, and only from this basis can real negotiations begin.

1. Jack Ewing, “U.S. Breaks With Allies Over Trade Issues Amid Trump’s ‘America First’ Vows,” The New York Times, March 18, 2017.
2.  Ibid.
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid.