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At Mnuchin's First Big Meeting, G-20 Shies From Endorsing Free Trade

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, left, address the media during a joint press conference in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday in advance of the weekend's G20 summit.
Michael Sohn
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, right, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, left, address the media during a joint press conference in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday in advance of the weekend's G20 summit.

At this weekend's gathering of the Group of 20, the world's 20 largest economies, the group took a step back from its typically overt pro-free trade agenda, in the wake of pushback from the United States.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen represented the U.S. in two days of meetings with their counterparts from the world's 20 largest economies in Baden-Baden, Germany.

"We are working to strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies," said the statement concluding this year's meeting. That wording stops short of rejecting protectionism, as the group has done in the past.

In this first G20 summit of the Trump era, there was trepidation among other members, following Trump's declaration of an "America First" agenda, and his criticism of the trade policies of China, Mexico, and others. As Steve Beckner reports for NPR's Newscast:

"At past meetings, joint affirmations of free trade have been virtually automatic. Last year, policymakers of the world's biggest trading nations pledged to 'reject protectionism.' But to the consternation of the host Germans and others, such language is conspicuously absent from the G20's latest statement."

Germany dropped the no-protectionism pledge early on in the process, the Associated Press reports, to avoid antagonizing the United States delegation. But in the end, the group failed to find a substitute phrase in support of free trade that all could agree on.

In his first international meeting since he was sworn in, Mnuchin said "the historical language was not really relevant."

"We believe in free trade, we are in one of the largest markets in the world, we are one of the largest trading partners in the world, trade has been good for us, it has been good for other people," Mnuchin said. "Having said that, we want to re-examine certain agreements."

The AP reports that Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany's finance minister, suggested there had been tension during the two-day meeting. Without mentioning a country by name, he said, "Maybe one or the other important member state needs to get a sense of how international cooperation works."

The Washington Post reports that Mnuchin quickly became the center of attention at the gathering, with many foreign leaders seeking to meet with him. During those meetings, the Post reports,

"Mnuchin delivered the same message that Trump had made for months, just slightly softer, according to attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions: The United States would unapologetically work to redraft trade practices in a way that helps American workers. He said trade agreements need to be "free and fair" and balanced. He also said an overhaul of the U.S. tax code was overdue and that the United States would rethink regulations put in place after the Great Recession. ...

Two European officials described Mnuchin as friendly but "tough." They also said the U.S. delegation at the G-20 was routinely checking back with its counterparts in Washington on certain issues, leading some Europeans to wonder with whom they were negotiating, Mnuchin or Trump. But one of the European officials said this was not uncommon for a new administration, which was still formalizing its viewpoint on an array of complicated matters."

The Group of 20 is comprised of 19 countries plus the European Union. This more casual meeting of finance ministers will be followed by a formal gathering of national leaders in Hamburg, Germany, in July.

You can read the full communiqué from the G20 here, at the German Federal Ministry of Finance.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.

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