In Hamburg, Trump will personally experience just how complex and multilayered global affairs are

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by Hans Dembowski

In global affairs, zero-sum thinking is not enough

This week, the top leaders of the G20 will meet in Hamburg. For the first time, US President Donald Trump will represent his country in this setting. The big question is whether this summit will have better results than the G7 summit in Sicily in late May.

Trump famously thinks in terms of zero-sum games, in which one side’s gains are always another side’s loss. Competent business people know that this view is wrong. Good business relations prosper because all sides benefit. They generate mutual trust. Taking advantage of others, on the other hand, destroys trust and offers no long-term prospects. As a business man, Trump often ripped others off – and as a result he now finds it hard to get loans from American banks. He even struggles to find people who want to work for him as a lawyer or serve in his administration. They fear that he will cheat them or tarnish their reputations.

What does not work in business, doesn’t work in politics either. It is profoundly worrying, that two of Trump’s advisers recently published a comment in the Wall Street Journal in which they praised the president’s zero-sum thinking. In the comment, H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, the head of the National Economic Council argued: “The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.”

I’ve taken this quote from a comment by David Frum, who used to write speeches for George W. Bush and is now a senior editor at the Boston-based magazine the Atlantic. I’ve referred to this article in an earlier blog – and I’m doing it again because it is really worth reading.

The core point is that this kind of zero-sum thinking is neither innovative nor brilliant. It has been outdated for decades. It is the kind of thinking that guided colonial powers and led to World Wars I and II. The lesson from those wars was that there are such things as global public goods, which nation states cannot bring about on their own. Peace, international trade and a stable financial architecture are examples. Earth is not a jungle in which all nations must fend for themselves, it is a forest with limited resources that must be managed well. If public goods are not ensured, all nations will suffer – including the most powerful ones. An important issue the international community could and should tackle now is the hunger crisis in South Sudan and other African countries.

In Sicily, Trump was obviously uncomfortable among democratically elected leaders of major economies who spoke their minds on global public goods such as trade or climate protection. He had felt much better a few days earlier in Riyadh where a summit of authoritarian Arab leaders promised to fight terrorism, without, however, really agreeing what exactly amounts to terrorism. The crisis that has erupted between Qatar and Saudi Arabia proves that the event in Riyadh did not result in strong unity.

In Hamburg, the Saudis are likely to flatter Trump again. His G7 counterparts are likely to take a similar stance as in Sicily. Trump may be looking forward to meeting Presidents Vladimir Putin and Reccep Tayip Erdogan because he seems to consider them favourably – but Putin is on Iran’s side in the Middle East, and Erdogan has expressed support for Qatar. Very generally speaking, most participants in Hamburg have good reason not to appear to be obeying the USA. They will want to be seen as equals, not underlings. After all, an international Pew Research Centre survey just revealed that Trump and his policies “are broadly unpopular around the globe”.

All summed up, Hamburg will be the first time Trump will personally experience just how complex and multilayered global affairs are. Thinking in terms of zero-sum games or friends versus foes will not suffice. The international community needs the USA to contribute to solutions. Unfortunately, there is ample reason to doubt that Trump is up to the task.  

P.S.: In case you wonder whether I am enjoying spending so much time writing about a dysfunctional US administration – the answer is: no, I don’t. I’d prefer dealing with less depressing issues, but they also seem to be less important. If the international community does not deal with Trump in a competent manner, we’re all heading back to violent and un-enlightened identity politics.


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