Presidential diplomacy will play an extremely important role during the Argentine leadership of the G20 in 2018 and President Mauricio Macri will face a considerable personal challenge in terms of heading foreign policy, which he cannot delegate, if he is to establish his prestige as a leader among his peers.
The G20, which Argentina will lead as of December this year, has become an annual forum of great relevance for contemporary foreign affairs. This series of meetings between the key developed and developing countries focused initially on financial issues of global impact, but has expanded its area of interest to the area of sustainable development. This has transformed it into a meeting point for the key global governance networks.
One of the characteristics of the G20 is the fact that it operates as an informal club of equals, where the organising country has a number of privileges and responsibilities. Among them are setting the agenda for the meeting, ensuring ongoing discussions on different topics and conducting this process carefully to arrive to a series of concrete agreements.
Selecting the G20’s agenda topics, priorities and objectives is an imminent challenge for President Macri. This is taking place in a global context full of paradoxes, which as Henry Kissinger once wrote “can be intriguing for the philosopher, but can be a nightmare for the statesman, that not only has to contemplate them, but also resolve them.”
The president will have to determine the agenda to be presented – and defended – by our negotiating teams, making sure they are relevant to the members of the G20. The Cabinet’s chief team under Fulvio Pompeo and the sherpa Pedro Villagra Delgado are working against the clock to come up with themes and priorities. Following the last sherpa meeting in Berlin in November – Germany chaired the G20 in 2017 – these themes will be presented in the form of “issue notes,” at the first sherpa meeting to be held in Argentina, on November 14 in Bariloche.
The process of presenting the topics may evolve from the more general to the more specific, as the Argentine presidency of the group progresses. One of the possible themes could be to build a consensus around what should be fair and sustainable development. On the financial front, it appears that there will be continuity with respect to past G20 meetings, set against a backdrop of steady but not stellar growth, in the midst of low productivity and certain systemic risks.
With respect to fair and sustainable growth, the focus could be on two specific topics. One would be the future of jobs and employment and how to prepare ourselves to face the challenges presented by ongoing technological changes. A second one would be the importance of developing adequate instruments to accelerate investments in the area of development infrastructure, something that is key to Argentina at present. President Macri will have to present these topics, in a specific and adequate manner, at the opening of the heads of state summit in 2018.
For President Macri to succeed in leading the G20, it will be critical to have effective internal coordination with respect to the topics to be discussed. Therefore, the different branches of the executive government should not compromise their positions, when interacting within their specific international organisations, without consulting with the president’s team first. It is important not to succumb to the temptation of making concessions without consulting the sherpa and the Cabinet’s chief team. To quote Kissinger again, he once stated that “perfect flexibility in diplomacy is the illusion of amateurs.” Degrees of flexibility and “red lines” must be determined by the president.
A key challenge for the president will be to avoid the transformation of the G20 into a ‘G19 vs 1,’ with the United States on one side, and the rest of the members on the other. The 2017 G20 presidential summit in Hamburg was described as a G19 + 1, a stark reflection of how complex it was to deal with the Donald Trump administration on some issues. While addressing this significant challenge, the president will be able to observe the behaviour of the United States at a number of international events: the renegotiation of NAFTA, the WTO ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires, the COP23 on climate change in Bonn, and the G7 summit in Canada in 2018. In addition, our negotiators will need to have a deep understanding of the various topics, and will need to know which are the “red lines” for the member countries in each topic.
It may be worthwhile for the president and his team to note the efforts made by the German Kanzlerin Angela Merkel, as leader of the G20 in 2017. Intending to bridges in turbulent times, Merkel visited more than 10 member countries over the two months previous to the Hamburg presidential summit. Additionally, he held numerous bilateral meetings at the summit with a focus on G20 topics, and multiple “pull-aside” informal encounters with his peers. At the end of the event, Merkel was responsible for summarising and presenting the summit’s results.
Interestingly, President Macri can present himself on the global scenario as someone adopting an uncommon posture in Argentine diplomacy: one that avoids exaggerating or overacting. His balanced style should be a contributing factor, providing a great contrast with the behaviour of Néstor Kirchner at the Summit of the America’s meeting in Mar del Plata in 2005. There, in an evident example of “presidential anti-diplomacy,” he famously and very publicly mistreated then-US president George W. Bush.
With this chance before him, Macri’s performance will shape the impression of him a leader among his peers. This opportunity should not be underestimated, given that as Charles de Gaulle once said: “In politics the first impression, although not always the most adequate, is frequently the one that lasts.”
A G20 that is lead ably by President Macri could also set an example for Argentine foreign relations in the future, which needs to improve itself in the management of the symbolic and the mastery of the concrete. But although the political value and capital of appearing in the company of the key world leaders is considerable, Macri’s ultimate diplomatic test will be to influence the G20’s agenda in a positive.
The stage awaits.