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At G-20 Summit In Germany, Expect No 'America First' Solutions


If we think of the G-20 as the world stage, then President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia are the stars of this particular play. And the two leaders are meeting now on the edges of the economic summit in Hamburg, Germany. Leaders from around the world are hoping to tackle issues like trade, terrorism and climate change at the summit. President Trump drew some ire from European leaders last time he paid a visit. Will things be different this time? To answer that, we are joined now by David Rennie. He's the Washington bureau chief for The Economist. David, thanks so much for being back on the show.

DAVID RENNIE: Good morning.

MARTIN: When President Trump was in Europe earlier this year, he kind of irked European leaders for not underscoring the importance of the NATO alliance and the idea of collective defense. And he hasn't exactly piled on the praise for traditional European allies like Germany or France. So what are the other world leaders at the G-20 - what are they looking for from President Trump in this summit?

RENNIE: To be honest, they're looking to limit the damage that could be done at this. I think if essentially nothing bad happens. They'll take that as a win. The G-20 is the kind of meeting where there are no America-first solutions. The kind of things that they want to discuss are climate change, free trade, how to really make the global, rules-based order that America used to proudly lead - how to make that work for a larger group of countries.

The G-20 is bringing in emerging markets and developing countries into that rules-based order. And you have an American president who pours scorn on the very idea of a rules-based order and wants to take this America-first approach. But it's very hard to see an America-first solution to many of these big, tough, complicated, global problems that the G-20 is set up to discuss.

MARTIN: How is that playing out in real terms in these meetings? I mean, the American president used to be the de facto head at these meetings, right? Is that no longer the case?

RENNIE: No. And you saw Angela Merkel, the host of this - she does not want a full-on confrontation with the United States. She has people in Germany, voters who are very, very hostile to him - would like to see her, you know, publicly rebuke him and pick a fight with him. She's not going to do that. That's not her style.

Before this summit, she actually tried directly to engage him in kind of smart ways. When she saw him in Washington, she talked about things like global pandemics and bird flu and tried to get him kind of intellectually curious about complicated global problems with global solutions. But the truth is that the last few weeks have seen more and more open hostility.

Angela Merkel gave an unusually sharp speech to the Bundestag, the German parliament, a few days ago where she really singled out Donald Trump not by name - but very clearly him - on climate change, on isolationism, on protectionism. So there's a real sense that these are leaders who are wary of him. They're also extremely worried about his meeting with Vladimir Putin because they relied on America for a long time to be, you know, the sheriff. And Russia was the baddie. And does this American president still see the world that way?

MARTIN: So let's talk about this - that, obviously, this big meeting between President Trump and Putin happening today. He did criticize Russia just yesterday for its encroachment into Ukraine. And he alluded to the allegations that Russia had been tampering in European elections. So what do Europeans want President Trump to say specifically in this meeting? Are they looking to him to apply pressure to Putin in some way?

RENNIE: I think it's even simpler than that. If you talk to diplomats in Washington who have prepared the first meetings between their presidents and prime ministers with Donald Trump, one by one, European leaders have gone into the Oval Office to meet Donald Trump and have said to him the same thing in a very coordinated way.

Do not trust Vladimir Putin. Do not think you can do big, smart deals where Russia is actually a helpful presence in places like Syria. Don't lift the Ukraine sanctions in exchange for kind of warm words from Russia. This is not a country that you can take lightly or trust too much. So there's a deep, deep kind of anxiety that the world knows what Vladimir Putin wants.

He wants the sanctions lifted that were imposed after the Ukraine invasion. Vladimir Putin wants a seat at the table. He wants respect. It's very much less clear to other Western leaders what Donald Trump thinks Russia can really give him. There's a kind of puzzlement that Donald Trump thinks there's some big, clever deal to be done with Putin.

MARTIN: Well - and he has made it clear that he likes to keep his cards close to his chest. And so he hasn't drawn the European leaders in. He hasn't created that kind of openness. He says that's probably to his advantage in making deals. But, clearly, that's something that irritates European leaders who are used to being at the center of the U.S. trans-Atlantic relationship.

RENNIE: That's right. And there's more than that. They worry that he hasn't really thought these things through, that he could walk into a bad deal, that he had some weird idea that he could do a deal where Russia helped him in Syria because Russia's less squeamish at killing people and that, basically, Donald Trump isn't as good at his deal making as he thinks he is. It's that level of anxiety on the European side.

MARTIN: David Rennie, Washington bureau chief for The Economist - he joined us via Skype this morning. David, thanks so much for being here.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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