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Summits are not just — or even mostly — about what happens in the formal leaders’ meetings. What happens on the sidelines often has the largest effect on steering the course of international politics. This is the first year that the G20 summit could end up as a failure, advancing little in the way of substantive progress on the global governance agenda, chiefly owing to the group now having to contend with Donald Trump taking America’s seat at the summit table. Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda — typified by its economic protectionism and rejection of the established multilateral order — is entirely antithetical to the G20’s previous commitments to reject protectionism and safeguard the liberal, rules-based, multilateral governance order. This year’s G20 is poised to end in the same impasse that marked the end of the G7 summit a few weeks ago in Sicily. Although the formal summit might well end in deadlock, what will happen on the summit’s sidelines will nonetheless mark the Hamburg Summit as the international political event of the year. There are three interactions between the leaders that we ought to keep our eyes on.

First, Donald Trump will meet Vladimir Putin for the first time. The meeting will be purposely low-key and without any agenda, but will nonetheless be the moment most watched (if not over-analyzed) at the summit. The meeting will bring into focus the full palette of issues that colour the US-Russia relationship: from allegations of Russian interference in the election that brought Trump to power to sanctions levied on Russia owing to its incursion into Ukraine, premature discussions about which forced the resignation of Trump’s first National Security Advisor, to the threat of escalation in Syria as military tensions increase and each country’s political objectives in the country remain opposed. The way in which this meeting is handled will affect the tumultuous domestic political situation Trump and his embattled administration face. If any substantive discussions are held, the outcome will likely affect the key international security questions of the present: be they economic sanctions, cyber security, Ukraine or Syria.

The second interaction demanding attention is between the summit’s host, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The pair will be forced to — at the very least — greet one another as the German-Turkish relationship steadily deteriorates. This will be Erdogan’s first visit to Germany since he accused Merkel of using “Nazi measures” against “Turkish brother citizens in Germany and brother ministers” by not allowing Turkish politicians to campaign in Germany in the run-up to the Turkish referendum that authorised sweeping new powers for the president. Last week Erdogan was denied a request to hold a rally with his supporters in Hamburg during the summit. With the Turkish diaspora in Germany numbering three million, Germany is concerned about Turkey’s domestic political tensions having a spillover effect, particularly as democratic norms continue to deteriorate in the wake of last year’s failed coup. How the two leaders manage their relationship over the course of the summit will have an impact on Germany’s domestic politics at a critical time for Merkel as she faces re-election in September. It will also have an effect on Turkey’s broader relationship with the European Union, particularly as Erdogan floats the prospect of reinstating the death penalty, which would definitively end Turkey’s already moribund bid for EU membership. 

Finally, Theresa May’s meetings on the margins of the summit are key. She heads to Hamburg in the wake of her failed election gamble back home in Britain. Politically wounded from her poor election performance and lacking the strengthened hand vis-a-vis Brussels she sought by going to the polls in the first place, May will likely use the summit as an opportunity to sound out non-European leaders on the potential for new trade relationships with post-Brexit Britain. Although no private meetings have yet been announced, the leaders with whom May does meet will give an indication of what Britain’s long-term trade strategy might be (currently one of a long list of unknowns surrounding Brexit and Britain’s future position in the world). If May is able to announce a new trade deal it will come as a much-needed boost to her standing with her party, the Commons and the British electorate. Without any good news to report, May will very likely head back to Britain on even weaker footing than she already finds herself.

This post originally appeared as a post with the University of Toronto: http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/blogs/170704-naylor.html .

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