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Opinion | News Flash: No Major Damage Done at G-20!

Category: Diplomatic Relations,Politics

Rarely might one expect much drama at the annual gathering of the Group of 20 leaders, except perhaps during a major global crisis, such as the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. Still these are important meetings at which American leadership normally yields significant outcomes that benefit the country’s economy and national security.

However, with Donald Trump as president, one can be forgiven for worrying what chaos may ensue at yet another multilateral forum. I have learned to brace myself for blows to our national standing every time Mr. Trump travels abroad — the mental equivalent of a pre-emptive defensive crouch.

Last week’s meeting in Buenos Aires was no different. In fact, it appeared to be an even more inauspicious moment than usual for a high-stakes foreign trip. Ukraine and Russia remain on hair-trigger war footing, while President Trump resorted inexplicably to his classic “both sides-ism” rather than clearly condemning Russian aggression.

Having whitewashed the Saudi crown prince’s apparent direct involvement in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, President Trump abandoned all pretense of principled leadership by pledging to pursue business as usual with the Saudis. Then, just as the president was about to be wheels-up, the guilty plea by his former lawyer Michael Cohen revealed that Mr. Trump was more enmeshed in discussions over a potential Russian business deal during the 2016 presidential campaign than he had previously acknowledged.

Against this backdrop, and grading on a curve (since every grade can’t be an F lest it become meaningless), President Trump’s trip to the G-20 could have been a lot worse. We can exhale, noting that no major damage was done.

This time, Mr. Trump refrained from publicly vilifying core United States institutions like the courts, the F.B.I. and C.I.A. He neither assailed his political adversaries nor committed major gaffes. Without explanation, Mr. Trump downgraded to private pull-asides two previously planned full bilateral meetings with the Turkish and South Korean leaders, but, thankfully, he avoided insulting any treaty ally. He even flattered his usual nemesis, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.

The president was not caught lavishing praise on dictatorial adversaries, having wisely (if likely for reasons other than those claimed) canceled a replay of the disastrous one-on-one meeting with Vladimir Putin of Russia in Helsinki. While we will never know what Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin discussed informally at the G-20 dinner, their exchange was comparatively abbreviated and perhaps less risky.

In addition, Mr. Trump avoided a full-on, public embrace of the pariah crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, leaving it to Mr. Putin and the prince to mime how fellow thugs salute each other when America has taken leave of its moral leadership.

Mr. Trump spoke respectfully of former President George H.W. Bush, whose death on Friday provided Americans one final public service by affording President Trump a lame, if handy, excuse to cancel the traditional post-summit news conference. As someone who endured the complaints of the White House press corps when President Barack Obama provided far more generous public access, my initial reaction to this evasion was outrage. But soon, my anger was surpassed by gratitude that Mr. Trump managed to skirt the spectacle of another unscripted news conference on foreign soil.

Despite the United States looking petty and isolated as the global outlier on climate change, the G-20 leaders did manage to agree on a final summit communiqué. This once-standard outcome used to be taken for granted but is no longer after Mr. Trump blew up this year’s G-7 summit and rattled leaders at NATO, and, just two weeks ago, Vice President Pence left the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference without any agreement.

No progress appears to have been made on addressing key global security challenges such as renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, or the unabated North Korean nuclear threat. Rather than rally the Western world to impose additional sanctions on Russia or to punish the Saudis for murdering an American resident in cold blood and repeatedly lying about it, President Trump and his team again took a pass on exerting traditional American leadership. These were significant missed opportunities but not new sins of commission.

The signing of the revised North American Free Trade Agreement, now called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, marked a milestone toward ending the American-induced crisis with its two neighbors. Yet Mr. Trump declared victory prematurely, given that congressional approval is far from certain. Meanwhile, Canada and Mexico still chafe at continued steel and aluminum tariffs.

Finally, President Trump chose to tap the brakes rather than drive the United States-China relationship over the cliff. By agreeing with President Xi Jinping of China to pause additional tariffs for 90 days to allow for continued trade negotiations in exchange for vague Chinese commitments to buy more American goods — plus a welcome commitment to restrict the availability of fentanyl — Mr. Trump has postponed escalation of his costly and risky trade war with Beijing. While perhaps only a temporary respite, this marks the most significant result of the G-20 gathering.

With Mr. Trump back on American soil, we can safely conclude that, at least this time, we dodged another blow to our national honor, even as we have surrendered our global leadership and become mostly a global bystander. We can only hope that Mr. Trump and his top advisers will now discern that less is more when it comes to this president’s travels abroad.

Susan E. Rice (@AmbassadorRice), the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, is a contributing opinion writer.

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