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Niall Ferguson

The G-20 dines a lot, but it doesn’t make progress

Brazil's President-elect Jair Bolsonaro listens to a reporter's question during an interview, outside his office of transition, in Brasilia, Brazil, on Nov. 28. Eraldo Peres/AP Photo

At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the delegates danced almost as much as they negotiated. As the Prince de Ligne put it: “The Congress dances a lot, but it doesn’t make progress.”

The dancing was a distraction. What mattered was that the monarchs of Europe — or, to be precise, their ministers — established a new order in Europe. After the upheavals of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s short-lived and unruly empire, five great powers combined to limit the threats posed to monarchy and aristocracy by liberalism and nationalism.

It was not a perfect order, but it made the 19th century a great deal more peaceful in Europe than the 17th, the 18th, or the 20th. Actually, the Congress did make progress.


Something similar can be said about this weekend’s meeting of presidents, prime ministers, and central bankers in Buenos Aires: The Group of 20 dines a lot, but it doesn’t make progress. Actually, it matters little whether Donald Trump rekindled his bromance with Xi Jinping on Saturday night or poured a bowl of soup over his head. The trivial details of the personal relations between the leaders provide endless fodder for journalists, but they are inconsequential. The real question is: Will the G-20 change the balance of power in the world?

President Trump’s critics are ready with their answer. In a preemptive strike, my old friend Fareed Zakaria of CNN argued last week that the summit would represent “peak America.” “Nothing animates the Trump administration more than its opposition to multilateralism of any kind,” Zakaria wrote in his column in The Washington Post. “And so, as the world gets more chaotic, the forces that could provide order are being eroded. And as is so often the case, China simply watches quietly and pockets the gains.”


As I said last week, we’re certainly beyond Peak Trump. But Peak America?

True, China would very much like to exploit President Trump’s personal unpopularity with other world leaders. Under Xi Jinping, the People’s Republic has mounted a highly ambitious effort to expand its global influence, not only by exploiting its economic power through trade and investment agreements, but also by attempting (in the words of a startling report published last week) “to penetrate and sway — through various methods . . . [best] summarized as ‘covert, coercive or corrupting’ — a range of groups and institutions, including the Chinese American community, Chinese students in the United States, and American civil society organizations, academic institutions, think tanks, and media.” Such efforts are not confined to the United States.

The free world is waking up to this, and with good reason. Look around. Though Argentina is the host of this year’s G-20, the biggest Latin American economy by far is Brazil. You will look in vain for evidence of Peak America in São Paulo, where I spent most of last week.

Northern hemisphere media coverage of the right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory in Brazil a month ago has been overwhelmingly negative. The emphasis has been on his military background, his inflammatory rhetoric, and his political resemblance to Trump.

In reality, the resemblances between Bolsonaro and Trump are superficial. Both men certainly expressed socially and culturally conservative sentiments that had long been taboo in elite political circles. Both legitimately directed their fire at corrupt and failing political establishments. And both unquestionably understood better than their opponents how to exploit the political power of social media. But there the resemblances end.


First, Bolsonaro’s focus is on law and order, not immigration. Brazil saw more than 60,000 murders in 2017, as much as China, the United States, and Mexico put together. Second, Bolsonaro has joined forces with the Chicago-trained free-market economist Paulo Guedes, whereas Trump’s one and only principle is protectionism. Bolsonaro’s vision is of a country rejuvenated. By contrast, Trump has principally appealed to the nostalgia of older voters.

The incoming Brazilian government is committed to fiscal consolidation (beginning with the disastrously unaffordable state pensions system), privatization of state companies, tax simplification, and market liberalization. This is the kind of economic reform Brazil desperately needs. It has the ninth-largest economy in the world, but ranks 125th in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, behind Iran.

What Paulo Guedes is talking about hardly sounds like the Chinese model — more like Margaret Thatcher does the samba. And indeed, Bolsonaro was openly hostile to China on the campaign trail, declaring: “The Chinese are not buying in Brazil. They are buying Brazil.” In March he even visited Taiwan.

All over the world, from big Brazil to tiny New Zealand, countries are having to choose sides as the Sino-American antagonism escalates from trade war to Cold (or at least Cool) War. It’s not such a difficult decision, however squeamish you feel about “Individual 1” (the code name special counsel Robert Mueller has given Trump). For the difference between Trump and Xi is that the former is just the temporary representative of a constitutional democracy, while the latter is the emperor for life of a one-party state.


The G-20 dined a lot in Buenos Aires, rather than danced. Regardless of the diplomatic chatter, it didn’t signify Peak America. Many people also thought the United States was over the hill when the G4 first met back in 1973 (another difficult year in the history of the modern presidency). They were wrong then. They are wrong now.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.