Turnbull weathers global rifts at G20

If there’s one thing that stands out after Malcolm Turnbull’s tour of Europe it’s that global politics is in dire straits.


Exhibit A is US President Donald Trump.

Trump is a man out of his depth and his “America first” approach to all issues is causing ripples across all areas of politics, trade, diplomacy, economics and the environment.

At various times during the G20 leaders summit in Hamburg – German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s home city – Trump appeared asleep, awkward, vague or uninterested.

Many leaders and officials were astounded when his daughter Ivanka sat in for him on a session on African development, refugees and health.

Standing in for leaders is usually only done by senior ministers.

The final leaders communique had to accommodate Trump on two issues – climate and free trade – after the US recently pulled out of the Paris accord and his administration flagged trade barriers to protect US jobs.

Secondly, British Prime Minister Theresa May is a dead leader walking.

The Times newspaper, on the day Turnbull arrived in London from Germany, carried a cartoon depicting May lying in a coffin, surrounded by arguing Conservative cabinet, with the caption “Funeral Rights”.

Brexit, the impending UK exit from the European Union, has made the nation the laughing stock of Europe and its recent national election weakened May’s political position.

She’s now left trying to strike job-saving trade deals with countries such as Australia and the US, and down the track with the EU as well.

Turnbull could help the political fortunes of his former Oxford University colleague with a speedily negotiated trade pact.

But the key to the survival of the May government will be a comprehensive agreement with the UK’s European neighbours, rather than a country of 24 million consumers on the other side of the world.

In contrast, Germany’s leader, who faces an election in September showed a great depth of diplomacy and patience during the G20 meeting, particularly with Trump.

Merkel landed the best possible G20 communique – the official meeting statement – in politically charged circumstances.

Despite this. Germany’s Social Democrats – led by former European parliament president Martin Schultz – could either end to her 11-year leadership or put a big dent her government.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who held a mid-air meeting with Turnbull between Hamburg and Paris, offers great hope for Europe’s future.

Macron, France’s youngest president since Napoleon, is savvy, modern and has a keen sense of the direction France should head in.

Turnbull is eager to seal an EU trade deal, which would not only help Australian exporters but meet Macron’s ambitious target of cutting his country’s 10 per cent unemployment rate to seven per cent.

Macron is clearly happy with the $50 billion submarine deal with Australia, which he’s labelled not just a contract but a way of lifting the two countries’ broader economic relationship.

The G20 also exposed a major problem in the way world leaders are handling security concerns, from North Korea to Islamic State.

Many leaders pointed the finger at China for not doing enough to bring North Korea into line, after it recently tested an intercontinental ballistic missile.

However, China and Russia say their influence is overestimated and imposing tougher sanctions on the rogue state could make conditions worse for its long-suffering citizens.

The situation has been complicated by Trump’s hinting at possible military action and sanctions against China.

While Australia is urging China to do more on North Korea, what it actually can do is yet to be determined.

The first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin was the much-watch event of the G20 summit.

But it’s telling the two officials tasked with briefing reporters on the meeting – Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – offered differing accounts.

Notably, Tillerson said Trump had a “robust and lengthy” discussion with Putin about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, but Lavrov said Putin had “satisfied” his American counterpart with his answer.

The upside is the leaders are still happy to talk.

As Winston Churchill once said: “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”