The G20’s Harmony Without Trump

MEDELLÍN – O Freunde, nicht diese Töne! (Oh friends, not these sounds!), proclaimed the baritone in the stirring performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the G20 leaders in Hamburg last Friday evening. That soul-stirring phrase, the opening line of “Ode to Joy,” Beethoven’s appeal to universal brotherhood, was the perfect message to the global leaders sitting in the concert hall’s balcony. The G20 President, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, actually made remarkable headway in channeling Beethoven’s spirit.

This G20 summit, of course, was the first with Donald Trump as US President. The summit’s discordant tones, echoed in the stormy sections of Beethoven’s symphony, emanated entirely from the United States. Trump has no use for appeals to brotherly love. He traffics in ethnic and religious divisiveness, hostility to neighbors (insisting again at the summit that the US will build a wall on the Mexican border and that Mexico will pay for it), and Manichean images of a Western civilization vulnerable to collapse at the hands of radical Islam, rather than at the height of unimaginable wealth and technological prowess.

While the conductor led the orchestra in a breathtaking performance, the true maestro of the evening was Merkel. What a stroke of genius to bring the G20 leaders to Hamburg’s spectacular new Elbphilharmonie concert hall, itself a triumph of architectural vision, to be inspired by perhaps the greatest musical work of universal culture, with its message of world harmony.

The concert itself offered layer upon layer of significance. The Germany of Beethoven has been reborn on the ashes of the Germany of Hitler. Germany today is a globally admired, peace-loving, war-abhorring, democratic, prosperous, innovative, and cooperative country.

At the same time, Beethoven’s genius belongs not only to his native Germany, or even to the West, but to all of humanity. His scoring of Schiller’s poetic ode reflects the truly global aspirations of the Enlightenment. Yes, the Enlightenment was a European phenomenon; but it was utterly aware of the entire world and of the dangers of particularism and chauvinism. In Germany, it was imbued with Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace,” grounded in the “categorical imperative” to act according to maxims that can be made into a universal law, rather than according to personal whims and narrow self-interest.

Trump’s “America First” is a brazen affront to Kantian ethics and a threat to peace. His break with the rest of the world on the Paris climate agreement is his most chilling act of naked self-interest so far. Its origin lies in the aim of a few US companies – led by Koch Industries, Continental Resources, Peabody Energy, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and a few others – to maximize profits from gas and oil fracking, deep-sea drilling, and continued coal mining and use, the climate consequences be dammed.

These fossil-fuel companies have financed the campaigns of the Republican representatives and senators who called on Trump to withdraw from the Paris accord. They, and the Republican politicians on their payroll, are prepared to sacrifice the wellbeing of fellow Americans, even their own families, not to mention the rest of the world and future generations. Greed über alles.

The question ahead of the G20 summit was therefore clear: Would other countries follow the US in recklessly putting self-interest above the common good? Rumors were flying. The New York Times ran a curtain raiser suggesting that Trump might succeed in pulling Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and even Indonesia into a petrostate coalition to weaken or overturn the Paris agreement.

For this reason, the future of global cooperation was at stake in Hamburg. It had taken many years – by one plausible accounting a full generation since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – to reach the Paris climate agreement, unanimously adopted by all 193 UN member states in December 2015. Could the US oil lobby, with their political lackeys in tow, send the world back to square one?

Merkel proved once again to be a bulwark of reason and efficiency. She did not panic, raise her voice, or make demands. But she made clear where she, Germany, and Europe stood. Following the G7 meeting in late May, she lamented that Europe could no longer fully rely on the US. Behind the scenes, she and the highly professional Germany diplomatic corps worked overtime to secure consensus – minus America – at the G20.

As the G20 leaders headed to the concert on Friday, their Sherpas stayed behind to debate the final text. Would Russia, Saudi Arabia, and others play Trump’s game? When the communiqué appeared, diplomats and climate activists around the world breathed a sigh of relief. All other G20 countries had resisted the US ploy. The communiqué was simple, accurate, and reassuring on climate change: “The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible….We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris Agreement, moving swiftly towards its full implementation…”

The communiqué does contain a paragraph of Trump doublespeak. The US affirmed “its strong commitment to an approach that lowers emissions while supporting economic growth and improving energy security needs,” and would “work closely with other countries to help them access and use fossil fuels more cleanly and efficiently and help deploy renewable and other clean energy sources.” As a teenager might say, “Whatever.”

On several other global issues, a full consensus was reached. The G20 reaffirmed that “international trade and investment are important engines of growth productivity, innovation, job creation, and development.” All G20 leaders recommitted their countries to universal health coverage (another clear message to Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan), and to strengthening health systems. They reiterated their commitment to sustainable development and to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

When the concert ended, the G20 leaders and the rest of the theater rose to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation. The curtain call truly belonged to Beethoven, Kant, and Merkel.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

By Jeffrey D. Sachs

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