Several things stand out when looking back at this year’s G20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the two day summit that ended on Dec. 1. As it has since its inauguration in 1999, the meet, which brings together the world’s largest economies, was attended by the leaders of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union.
First, and perhaps most glaring, only two of the twenty leaders present were women. These heads of state were the U.K.’s Theresa May, whose government could fall at any time, and Germany’s soon to retire Angela Merkel. That both are tenacious and skilled politicians is undeniable, that they are also conservatives is troubling, at least for the left.
One thing that was immediately clear when looking at the gathered heads of state was a deep ideological fissure that wasn’t really noticeable until recently. The split isn’t the longstanding one between ‘free market’ liberals and ‘free market’ conservatives, although this was, to a certain degree, still there. Instead, the clearest divide was between the neoliberals regardless of party and the authoritarian nationalists who have risen to prominence in all too many places in recent years.
The interesting thing about the latter group is that many of these leaders have been around for quite some time but have failed to coalesce in the public mind, at least in the English speaking world, as similar in their way of garnering electoral success if not always in their styles of governing. It’s important to note that they have all built their power within nominally democratic countries.
Donald Trump, although he gets much of the spotlight because of U.S. power and his own strange behavior, is just the newest representative of this club with his ‘America First’ rhetoric. That he will be joined next year by Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil (who received a visit from Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton just prior to the summit), a man whose policy ideas and public statements are arguably worse than his American counterpart, shows that Latin America could see the rise of its own populist right in the years ahead, which could create serious problems for marginalized communities like the indigenous and people of African descent throughout the region.
There should be no doubt that the U.S. president and Brazil’s soon to be head of state are following in the footsteps of the longer serving leaders of India, Russia and Turkey, who built their support on the basis of extreme nationalism allied with religious majoritarianism. Contrary to what many of the experts on cable news will tell us, the religion itself doesn’t really matter. Whether its Hinduism, Eastern Orthodoxy or Sunni Islam, each can be used effectively to rally majority populations to scapegoat minority population (or, in Europe and North America, immigrant communities). While Donald Trump is in many ways a philistine, his evangelical base, like that of his Brazilian counterpart Bolsonaro, is a key part of his rightwing coalition.
As for Europe, although Italy’s main leadership is populist without necessarily falling on either the left or right, the 5 Star Movement’s main coalition partner, La Liga, is as far to the right as any other major European political party, putting the country to some extent into the religious nationalist column.
These right wing leaders, along with the autocratic Xi Jinping of China (recently breaking with tradition to potentially become China’s ‘president for life’), and the despotic Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) show that much of the world, rather than embracing extended democracy and social liberalism, is backsliding into the kind of authoritarian nationalism all too often partnered with superstition that students of history might associate more with the 19th than the 21st century.
In the most commented on moment during the two day summit, Vladimir Putin and MBS shared a strange ‘high five’ style handshake, with the Russian leader breaking from his usual reserve to embrace a monster who many expected to be a kind of a pariah at the summit.
For the left, this was an important reminder that the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend and while the Russian Federation has picked up the pieces after the mistakes of the U.S. and its NATO allies, the country’s government is no better than any other and is in many ways much worse than many we routinely criticize.
Although most of the mainstream English language media failed to note it, the friendliness between the two leaders was probably the result of an OPEC meeting scheduled in Vienna on Dec. 6, where the Saudis and Russians hoped to use their leverage to raise energy prices by cutting production, despite the protestations of the United States and other countries. Note: as of this writing, an agreement has yet to be reached on the cuts.
Showing that the grip of neoliberalism on the world economy is far from broken, the leaders of most of the rest of the countries at the summit are solidly in what some on the far right call the ‘globalist’ camp. They are not without problems, mostly of their own making. To take two examples, Argentina itself is facing increasing unrest after yet another round of austerity brought on by an IMF bailout. Nonetheless, Maurizio Macri, was one of the summit’s seeming winners, inking 30 new trade agreements with China during the G20.
Another of the more traditional politicians in attendance, Emmanuel Macron, who some in France have taken to calling “the president of the rich”, had his own awkward moment with the Saudi Crown prince, and was probably glad to be far from home, where widespread and sometimes violent protests sparked by the introduction of new taxes on gas and diesel, were rocking the country.
Also among those gathered for the meeting was the outgoing president of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, who appeared with U.S. President Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the public signing of the successor to NAFTA, the USMCA. Although I haven’t read the new agreement, most commentators have claimed that it changes very little and seems to be something of a PR exercise for Trump, who often sounds like a leftist when talking to his base while pursuing policies that are even more laissez-faire than most of his predecessors since the 1980s.
As Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations explained after the signing, “Yes, it’s a huge deal, but it’s a huge deal that was negotiated in the 1990s. This agreement has some differences, but they’re not that significant.”
We probably shouldn’t expect that this betrayal of his base will change the minds of Trump’s non rich supporters who still insist, against all evidence, that the current president is working in their interests by rebranding the same old Republican policies.
As for the left, it was almost entirely absent Buenos Aires, save for Indonesia’s Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and South Korea’s Moon Jae in, both of whom can be called progressive, at least in the context of their countries’ politics (admittedly a very low bar for the former). However, the prospects for next year look much better for the newly rising populist left, as at least one important leader, Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (usually referred to simply as AMLO) will take his place at the G20, possibly joined by another man of the left if his country’s government collapses due to Brexit negotiations, Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn.
These left populists couldn’t have appeared on the world stage at a better time as the 2018 G20 demonstrated. Traditional politicians with their calls for austerity that only makes demands on ordinary working people have proven unable to cope with the religious nationalists and other right wing populists who in reality almost always offer remarkably similar policies once in office.
As in most cases in recent years, the Buenos Aires G20 took place far away from any voices of protest, this is why leaders like AMLO, Corbyn and, perhaps after 2020, an American progressive like Bernie Sanders, need a seat at the table.