G20 leaders accept that, in order to progress on coronavirus, they will have to wait until Biden is in the White House – but Trump has other ideas

Kim Sengupta
<p>World leaders attending the virtual G20 Riyadh Summit</p> (EPA)

World leaders attending the virtual G20 Riyadh Summit


Donald Trump skipped some of the virtual meetings of G20 leaders last week to play golf and appeared to pay little attention to the sessions he did attend. The final communique from the summit, in turn, reflected how the world is moving on as the US president nears the end of his turbulent presence on the international stage.

The group stressed in its final statement the urgency of focusing on the coronavirus pandemic and climate change and the need for trade stability amid the massive economic crisis. It emphasised the need to back “United Nations systems and agencies, primarily the World Health Organisation WHO)”. It also committed to strengthening the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and striving to protect open markets.

The meeting in Saudi Arabia did not provide a blueprint for this multilateral path. But the future it presents is very different from the position of the Trump administration, which has pulled out of and is cutting its funding of WHO; started trade wars; and is in the process of abandoning the Paris climate agreement.

Trump’s tenure has been marked by personally disruptive behaviour and rancour at international meetings. Among other instances, he had attacked the host country, Japan, and other allies before the last G20 summit in Osaka. The president left Nato’s 70th anniversary conference in Britain last year, without making a keynote appearance, after a video circulated of him being apparently mocked by Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau.

In one of his rare moments of participation in the Riyadh Summit this year, Trump had railed against the climate agreement. “The Paris accord was not designed to save the environment, it was designed to kill the American economy. I refuse to surrender millions of American jobs and send trillions of American dollars to the world's worst polluters and environmental offenders, and that's what would have happened,” he declared. The US is due to leave the agreement this month.

As the summit ended, the US formally pulled out of the Open Skies Treaty, which had for decades allowed flights from participating countries to fly over each other, with elaborate safety procedures in place.

Much of this year’s summit dealt, as was to be expected, with the pandemic. The G20 stated that it intended to strengthen the WHO’s “overall effectiveness in coordinating and supporting the global response to the pandemic and the central efforts of member states”.

The EU and the UN said that the G20 should fill a £4.5bn funding shortfall in programmes to counter Covid-19. Around $10bn has been donated so far by countries in two programmes, which are meant to ensure that vaccines do not remain the preserve of wealthy states.

Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary stressed: “The recent breakthrough on vaccines offers a ray of hope. But that ray of hope needs to reach everyone. That means ensuring that vaccines are a people’s vaccine accessible and affordable to everyone, everywhere. This is not a ‘do-good’ exercise. It is the only way to stop the pandemic dead in its tracks.”

The G20 said that it had “mobilised resources” to address the immediate financing needs in global health to support the research, development, manufacturing and distribution of safe and effective Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. But it gave no details on how this was being achieved.

There is a consensus that international initiatives on coronavirus and a number of other pressing issues would have to wait until Joe Biden gets to the White House and some of the fractures brought about in the Trump years have at least had a chance to heal.

Biden has said he wants to rejoin WHO and will stay in the Paris Accord, among other pledges of seeking solutions through cooperation and dialogue. Most of the countries present at the summit have congratulated him on his victory.

Things, however, continue to be very different in the world according to Donald Trump, one in which he has won the election resoundingly. The White House announced that he was looking forward to attending the next summit. “President Trump thanked Saudi Arabia for its leadership during its G20 presidency and looked forward to working with Italy as incoming G20 president,” Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was keen to assure.

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