The G20 summit in Hangzhou serves as a further illustration of an important fact of international relations: despite appearances the international system is actually surprisingly stable.
By the 1960s three Great Powers had emerged in the world: the US, Russia and China., around whom the international system revolved. Today, 50 years later, those same three countries remain the three Great Powers at the heart of the international system, though India is rapidly evolving into a fourth.
There have been significant shifts in the weight of power that each of the Great Powers carries – with Russia significantly weaker and China much stronger than in the 1960s – and in the relationships between the Great Powers – with Russia and China enemies in the 1960s but now allies – but in terms of their importance in the world it is these powers plus India which are the ones which continue to matter.
The other great change is the change in the diplomatic position of the US. In the 1960s it was the US, then as now the strongest of the Great Powers, which stood at the centre of diplomatic contacts and which was the heart and centre of the international system.
Today the US finds itself in various forms of conflict with all the other Great Powers – even India – and risks finding itself excluded. Despite its feverish attempts to “isolate” Russia, it is Russia – paradoxically today the weakest of the original three Great Powers – which is now increasingly becoming the centre and heart of the international system.
It is the Russians – not the US – who are talking to everyone, and who everyone wants to talk to. It is to the Russians that the Chinese look for support in the conflict in the South China Sea. It is to the Russians that the Far East Asian powers – Japan and South Korea – are now turning.
It is the Russians who despite the odd setbacks are increasingly making the weather in the Middle East, with Putin at the G20 summit having intense and substantive talks with Erdogan, Egypt’s General Sisi, and the Saudis, even as Russia continues to develop its relations with Iran.
Even the Europeans are talking to the Russians. Putin made it clear before the G20 summit that following the Crimean incident he would not meet with Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko in the Normandy Four format in Hangzhou. The result? Merkel and Hollande still met with him – though separately (as Putin probably wanted) – with Poroshenko nowhere to be seen.
Of the Europeans, it was not just Merkel and Hollande who met with Putin in Hangzhou. Britain’s Theresa May met with him as well, in a somewhat stiff “get-to-know-you” meeting marking her first proper foray into international diplomacy.
Putin of course also met in Hangzhou with the leaders of Russia’s other BRICS partners apart from China: Modi of India, Zuma of South Africa and the new Brazilian President Michel Temer. The meeting with Temer will have been particularly interesting, with Putin seeking – and apparently receiving – assurances that despite the recent change of government in Brazil the country remains committed to the BRICS.
Balancing the meeting with Brazil’s Temer, Putin however also met in Hangzhou with the other newly installed leader of the other Latin American giant: President Macri of Argentina.
Both Temer and Macri – unlike their predecessors – are conservative right wingers who will unquestionably tilt their two countries back towards their historically close relations with the US. By continuing to talk with them and to engage with them Putin and the Russians however keep them engaged and keep the doors for future cooperation open.
If Putin and the Russians are at the centre of international diplomacy, their Chinese ally – through deliberate choice – prefers to play a quieter and longer game. Conscious of their rapidly growing power, the Chinese sit back and wait, leaving the Russians to do the hard work for them and for the US to make the mistakes.
If the Russians at Hangzhou were busy with diplomacy and the Chinese acted with their usual discretion, the US behaved with what can only be called petulance.
Not only did US President Obama’s participation at the summit in Hangzhou start in a farcical fashion, but the US delegation through its ham-fisted behaviour managed to draw attention to the fact.
Obama then held a difficult and tetchy meeting with Putin, in which he failed to achieve progress on Syria and threatened Putin with cyber warfare (!) , but he seems to have had equally tetchy encounters with his Chinese hosts, whom he could not resist lecturing and publicly threatening over the South China Sea.
To round off a peculiarly hapless visit, Obama also had to call off a meeting with the new leader of the Philippines – supposedly a US ally – as the insults flew between them with the newly elected President Duterte of the Philippines calling Obama publicly the “son of a whore”.
Obama has never been good at diplomacy, which bores him, and the fact that he is in the last weeks of his Presidency would anyway reduce his level of engagement and the interest of other leaders in him. However even allowing for that, and even by his own standards, this was an unusually poor effort.
Unfortunately the problem is not unique to Obama. The ideology of American Exceptionalism – accepted by Obama and now the orthodoxy in the US which Hillary Clinton says all US politicians must accept – by placing the US above all other powers makes effective diplomacy impossible.
The US no longer engages other powers diplomatically as it did in the 1960s. Instead it orders them around and threatens them when they don’t do what they are told.
Against small and weak powers beholden to the US for a time that can work. Against mighty powers like Russia and China – or even truculently independent minded relatively minor powers like the Philippines – it is a guarantee of failure, and that diplomatically is what the US is now achieving, as became clear in Hangzhou.