Preview of the G20 Summit

Preview of the G20 Summit

A jet liner flies over the G20 summit venue at the Costa Salguero Center in Buenos Aires Gustavo Garello/AP Photo
from Media Briefings

More on:

G20 (Group of Twenty)


Xi Jinping

Vladimir Putin

Mohammed bin Salman

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

CFR experts preview the upcoming Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Buenos Aires on November 30–December 1, including the planned meeting between President Donald J. Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping against the backdrop of U.S.-China trade tensions; the expected attendance of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; and the potential meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Miles Kahler

Senior Fellow for Global Governance

Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars

Stephen Sestanovich

George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies

KAHLER: Good afternoon. This is Miles Kahler. I’m Senior Fellow for Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. I will be moderating this discussion.

I’ll have a few remarks about the G-20 summit that we’ll be talking about today that’s taking place in Buenos Aires later this week, particularly the U.S.-China dimension. But I’d like to introduce our two other senior fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I’ll come back to them with questions in a moment. They are Steven Cook, who’s the Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council, and Steve Sestanovich, who’s the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

Let me begin just by noting that the big item on the agenda, certainly in the eyes of the American public and American business, is the U.S.-China relationship and whether this meeting, the meeting that’s scheduled this weekend between President Trump and Xi immediately after the summit, will produce at least a truce in the escalating trade conflict between the two countries. This is a major question.

There have been conflicting predictions that have emanated from both the administration and from those outside regarding the likelihood of such a truce. And I think it’s most likely there would be at best a truce in the trade conflict and not a resolution, by any means.

The administration itself seems to be divided between trade hawks—Robert Lighthizer at the USTR and Peter Navarro, the assistant to the president for trade policy, on the one hand—and the trade doves, on the other, who want at least this truce—the National Economic Council head, Larry Kudlow, and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin.

Of course, one of the complaints of China in this conflict, ongoing conflict, is that the bottom line of the administration itself is unclear. But it’s also clear that it has hardened in recent weeks, which leads to a certain amount of pessimism about the outcomes at the summit, particularly judging from public statements made by Vice President Pence at the Hudson Institute and at the APEC summit, which broke up without a communique.

At the center, of course, is the behavior of President Trump and what he is aiming for at the summit. On the one hand, there could be a somewhat disruptive and embarrassing end, as there was at the G-7 summit in Canada, when he left the summit and then tweeted insults to Prime Minister Trudeau and instructed his aides not to sign the agreed communique. Or there could be a repeat of something like the Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in which President Trump declared victory without a great deal of detail to show for it. So—or it could be something in between. It’s very difficult to say.

In any case, it’s quite clear that in official Washington the line toward China has hardened. It’s gone far beyond trade. But whether the truce in the trade conflict can be reached or whether the tariffs currently in place, put in place on China by the United States, will go up on January 1st and possibly be expanded to cover all of—virtually all of Chinese exports to the United States is a critical question and one that is going to be on the minds not only of those watching the summit from the United States, but also the other leaders who will be present at the summit, because it has tremendous implications for the world economy.

So we can come back to that issue or set of issues with questions from those of you who are online. But let me turn now to the other two senior fellows who are present, first to Steven Cook at the Middle East. Usually the Middle East does not figure that prominently in the G-20 discussions. This year two leaders will be present who have figured very prominently in the case of the disappearance and murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi—the president of Turkey, Erdogan, and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.

I guess an opening question to you is will the summit produce some sort of confrontation over this issue, which has been very prominently played out in the United States in recent weeks. Will it produce some sort of closure or will this case simply be sidestepped by all the parties including President Erdogan and Crown Prince bin Salman? Steven.

COOK: Well, thanks very much, Miles. This is, in fact, one of the major issues that people are watching as we—as we head into the summit. I should note that there is some effort on the part of international organizations to encourage prosecutors in Argentina to file charges against Mohammed bin Salman not necessarily for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi but actually for war crimes in Yemen. So that’s another angle of the Saudi crown prince’s attendance at this G-20.

I don’t expect that there will be a major confrontation between the Turks and the Saudis at the—at the summit. It’s clear that Mohammed bin Salman is intent on attending the G-20 as a way of demonstrating that neither he nor Saudi Arabia are an international pariah. I should note that the crown prince will be meeting with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but there are no plans as of yet for him to meet with President Trump.

The other big issue is the presence of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to meet with President Trump. This is going to be the first face-to-face meeting between the two, although they have shared a phone call. But the first face-to-face meeting since this past summer, when there was a war of words between the two when the United States applied sanctions on two Turkish ministers and then added tariffs to Turkish aluminum and steel.

The release of the North Carolina pastor, Andrew Brunson, in October opened the dialogue after this very, very difficult period in U.S.-Turkey relations and to foreshadow the bilateral between Erdogan and Trump. Foreign Minister Davutoglu was in D.C. last week with a list of demands following the release of Pastor Brunson and those fall into four categories.

First, the extradition of eighty-four alleged followers of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based cleric that the Turks have said is the mastermind behind the coup. I’ve seen a partial list. The Turks haven’t produced a full list. I’ve seen a partial list. Not all of the people named are actual followers of Gülen. Some are just oppositionists who have fled Turkey and have settled here in the United States.

The second demand that Erdogan will bring to Trump in their bilateral meeting is an end to U.S. ties with what’s called the People’s Protection Units, known universally as the YPG, a Syrian-Kurdish fighting force that the United States has been allied to in Syria. This has been essentially the United States’ fighting force in the fight against the Islamic State. The YPG is connected to the PKK, a Turkish-Kurdish terrorist organization that has been fighting the Turkish government for thirty years. Thus, this is a major issue for the Turks to try to get the United States to back away from the YPG.

The third demand from Erdogan will be an end to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York’s investigation into Halkbank, a state-owned bank in Turkey. One of the executives has already been found guilty of engaging in one of the largest sanctions-busting schemes in history and is serving jail in the United States. But there is an ongoing investigation into Halkbank. There is some speculation that this investigation will uncover wrongdoing on the part of President Erdogan and thus the Turkish government is intent on trying to get the U.S. government to quash this investigation.

And then finally, the Turks are going to be asking for a permanent exemption on buying Iranian crude. They were one of eight countries that have been given an exemption. They would like to make that exemption permanent. None of these things seem likely to happen, and against the backdrop of these demands Congress is now also weighing whether to cut Turkey out of the F-35 program.

So it is a rich agenda for President Erdogan and President Trump. I suspect that some of the initial optics between the two presidents will be quite good. But after the meeting, President Erdogan is not likely to be very happy with the outcome.

KAHLER: Thanks, Steven. Let me—let me follow up briefly. There were a lot of demands there from the Turkish side. One backdrop that you didn’t mention is the economic backdrop in Turkey, which is not bright. The summit is taking place in Argentina, one of the emerging economies that has certainly encountered a lot of difficulties in the last two years since President Macri took office. And with the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, other emerging economies also face some difficulties.

Turkey has a very high level of international debt. Is it going to face—is it in a very weak economic position to be making demands of this kind? And how will that feed into its relations and its discussions with both Trump and, potentially, the Saudis? At least some reports have suggested that Erdoğan is trying to extract economic concessions from the Saudis as well.

COOK: Let me pick up on the last part and then work my way back in your excellent question, Miles.

Reportedly, the Saudis have offered—have offered the Turks money in order to make the Jamal Khashoggi situation go away, and the Turks have refused. I think that President Erdoğan sees his interests are better served by continuing this story as best as possible, positioning himself as a responsible party, demonstrating that American foreign policy in the Middle East is not best served by so closely being—by being so closely aligned with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but would be better served by being more closely associated with the Turks. So it’s unclear to me whether economic issues are actually going to be first on Erdoğan’s mind.

There was a lot of expectation over the summer that Erdoğan would have to cave given the collapse of the lira and go to the IMF, seek assistance from the United States. Instead, he made his resistance to these a nationalist virtue, called upon his followers to burn euros and dollars, appealed to God, and decided to wait it out.

The situation is not good, but up until this point, his political situation is stable. And that’s the thing that Erdoğan is most concerned about. If there are protests in the streets of Turkey about the economy, it’s going to be protests against the United States and Europe rather than protests against Erdoğan, which is precisely how Erdoğan has been setting the table on this issue for actually quite a number of years. That’s why there’s been significant rhetoric about international bankers, the interest rate lobby, international Zionists, and all of those things have been designed to deflect responsibility for Turkey’s economic mismanagement, which Erdoğan is responsible for, but is determined not to pay a political price.

I will say that attacking central bankers is something that President Trump and President Erdoğan have in common.

KAHLER: Thanks. So let me turn briefly to Steve Sestanovich. This year, it looked like Russia was not going to be a major element in the G-20 summit as we await the outcome of the Mueller investigation in the United States. And the Russian economy has had its own difficulties in recent years, but Vladimir Putin once again has startled the world just before the summit with the crisis in the Kerch Strait between Russia and the Ukraine. How is that going to feed into the summit? Is it going to affect Putin’s presence at the summit, at his discussions with other leaders? And that would not involve just—not just the United States, but, of course, obviously, the European leaders as well who have taken the side of Ukraine in this crisis.


SESTANOVICH: Thanks, Miles. And thanks for chairing this.

There had been some speculation that the Putin-Trump meeting might actually not occur, but I think the Ukraine crisis makes it more likely that it will. It’s the—it’s the unavoidable issue that has to be discussed by the two of them. And there are reports that President Poroshenko has asked Trump to pass a message to Putin. He now is virtually obliged to have that meeting so as to fulfill this request.

I think, though, there’s a sort of bigger reason to see this as a different meeting from the ones that they’ve had before besides Ukraine, and that is that it is the first one that is almost guaranteed to be a kind of tense meeting. Previous meetings have centered around the goal that both of them share of creating a cooperative relationship, which Trump has—and you could argue Putin too—have sort of mishandled in previous meetings. But now the context is rather different. Disagreements are piling up between the two sides, and not just ones that were inherited from the Obama era. There’s now confrontational rhetoric between the two governments and a series of actions and initiatives that one side regards as provocative.

So the challenge for the meeting is how to deal with this new agenda of hard problems, not how to create a broadly cooperative relationship. And let me just quickly look at the four that I think are the kind of big ones for this meeting.

The first, of course, is, as I’ve suggested, Ukraine. This will be the most dramatic one. It would possibly not have been on the agenda if they’d had a meeting without this new action by the Russians. When John Bolton was in Moscow last month, he didn’t even mention Ukraine in his public remarks about his conversations with Russian officials, but now it’s been pushed to the forefront. Trump himself has spoken of Russian aggression. As I mentioned, President Poroshenko wants a message to be passed. And there is surely going to be a kind of basic requirement that President Trump warn Putin.

Second, the issue of arms control. Here it’s an American initiative that has roiled the agenda—the decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty of thirty years ago. The Russians didn’t really like the INF Treaty, but they were taken by surprise by what Trump announced. And their response has been, oddly enough, rather negative. They have warned of a new arms race, told Trump he shouldn’t think about deploying new missiles in Europe, and so forth. One question will be whether—what this does to ideas about renewing the New START Treaty or resuming talks on strategic stability.

A third issue is, of course, the perennial favorite, election interference. I’d have said that the strategy on both sides is to hope that this issue will go away, but there has been very stiff talk on the U.S. side on this subject in previous sessions with Russians. When Pence saw Putin briefly in Singapore, he made a point of saying we’re not having any of your denials about interference. And Bolton in Moscow said don’t mess with American elections.

I think in this way they’ve raised the bar and made it necessary for Trump to echo their statements, a contrast from the stance he took in Helsinki, where he seemed to align himself against the rest of the U.S. government.

Fourth issue, Syria and Iran. Counterterrorism was supposed to be kind of the heart of the Russian-American cooperative relationship that Trump envisioned. But it’s been hard to make it work except in the very narrow sense of deconfliction of the military activities in Syria. And the U.S. has made this probably a little more complicated of late by its emphasis on wanting the Russians to help get the Iranians completely out of Syria, the Iranians and Iran-backed forces, and by saying that—which Russian officials have expressed considerable opposition to, saying that American troops would stay in Syria until the Russians got the Iranians out.

Now, this is a broad set of disagreements. And Trump and Putin can go at them in different ways. It’s likely to be a short meeting, so we may not really get a good sense of their strategy. One question that I’d suggest people watch for is this. Will they, at the end, reaffirm the idea of an early visit to Washington by Putin? This was first supposed to happen this year. Then it was put off until early next year.

Even back in the summer it was not clear that the ground had been prepared for such a visit. And now it seems to me both sides are still less ready. The administration may be wary of seeming to reward Russia for attacks on Ukraine, and they may want a kind of cooling-off period on that issue. But they may also think that it’s not particularly productive to have Putin come when there are all these other issues that are hanging fire—that are the source of disagreement between the two sides. Why don’t I stop with that?

KAHLER: Right. Thank you very much, Steve.

Samantha, I think we now should turn to those online so that we can get some questions from them, and I should note that this conversation is on the record and a transcript of the call will be posted online at So let’s take some callers.


OPERATOR: Our first question will come from Kim Dozier with The Daily Beast.

Q: Hi there. Thanks for doing this call.

The subject of Iran—how much do you think that is going to dominate any of the discussions?

KAHLER: Steven, I think, will—

COOK: Yeah. Yeah. Thanks, Miles, and thanks, Kim, for the question.

I think that it’s clear that the administration wants to continue to turn up the pressure on the Iranians and wants to, in some sense, push its allies within the G-20 into the uncomfortable position of having to defend their desire to remain within the JCPOA. I just had an opportunity to see Brian Hook, who gave a number of presentations on Iran, and the administration is intent on getting down to zero with regard to Iranian oil exports, will be deploying monitors around the world, and will be naming and shaming those who do not comply.

So I think that this is something that the administration is going to bring to G-20. It doesn’t strike me, though, that going in that this is going to be the major focus for the administration. I think most of what we see coming out of this—going into it, I should say—is on the China front and then on this question of MBS’s attendance as well as that of President Erdogan.

But without a doubt, Iran remains the top foreign policy concern in the Middle East and this is something that the administration has been signaling. Just looking at Secretary Pompeo’s Wall Street Journal op-ed today was essentially that they regret the killing of Jamal Khashoggi but Iran is a major threat to the region and the world. So one cannot go to a G-20 at this moment and believe that Iran won’t be part of the U.S. conversation there.

SESTANOVICH: Miles, can I add one thing to this?


SESTANOVICH: You suggested earlier, which I think was a good reminder for everybody on the call, that multilateral sessions of this sort are not the natural setting in which Trump thinks it’s helpful to advance American interests. In general, multilateral agreements are ones that he disparages because he figures that the bilateral pressures that the U.S. can exert are always going to be more effective and that it’s in settings like this that the United States is at a disadvantage.

So take the Russian case. The discussions that the United States wants to have with Russia about Iran are ones that it wants to have bilaterally. It doesn’t—it isn’t going to see any advantage in doing that in a multilateral framework.

KAHLER: No, I think it’s important to note that at this G-20 perhaps even more than those of the past the attention is going to be on bilateral meetings between the United States and other countries and possibly some bilateral meetings among other members of the G-20, and the actual multilateral sessions in some sense get, despite the very rich agenda that the Argentines have put together for this G-20, tends to get a little bit sidelined in light of these very important bilateral discussions, which, as you mentioned, quite correctly, are the preference for the Trump administration—the president himself. He also believes, of course, this is where his particular skills as a negotiator can come forward—in negotiations with other leaders.

But let’s—I would also just add, on the Iran question it’s yet another—we haven’t talked about U.S. relations with its allies, but it is yet another major irritant between the United States and its major allies, particularly in Europe, along with the steel and aluminum tariffs and trade issues as well. So there is an inside-the-G-7 set of issues that may come out somewhat in the G-20 summit as well, as they did in the summer at the G-7 summit.

Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Krishnadev Calamur with The Atlantic.

Q: Hi. Thank you for doing this.

My question is, are there likely to be any private conversations at the G-20 with MBS about the Khashoggi killing? And additionally, given that many G-20 countries are also potential investors in Saudi Arabia, can the crown prince’s image as a reformer survive this incident? Thank you.

KAHLER: Steven?

COOK: Thanks. Yeah, thanks, Krishnadev.

Look, I think that the crown prince’s image as a reformer is in tatters. He had a broad international constituency in support of his Vision 2030 and has—in particular with the Khashoggi killing, has undermined that. That doesn’t mean that businesses don’t want to do business in Saudi Arabia. And I think that the recent investors’ conference in Riyadh demonstrates that. While a number of high-profile CEOs avoided the conference because they didn’t want to be put in the position of having to be in a picture with Mohammed bin Salman, a large number of lower-level executives from those very same firms attended anyway.

Saudi Arabia is, I think, from the perspective of business, very, very important. This is despite the fact that foreign direct investment is down over the course of 2017 and thus far in most of 2018.

As far as whether there’s going to be any side conversations between Mohammed bin Salman and others, we know that there’s going to be a meeting between the crown prince and the Russian president. Beyond that, what happens in the hallways, I suspect, is not the way the Saudis are going to want to be doing business over this issue. The Saudis’ preferred mode is behind closed doors in which, after the conversation, everybody steps out and there are niceties expressed.

So I think the Saudis are likely to be very, very careful with their bilaterals, who they meet and what they talk about. Certainly they don’t want to talk about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and will avoid those conversations.

KAHLER: OK, thanks.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Manik Mehta with Bernama.

Q: Yeah, hi. This is Manik Mehta.

I heard someone say at the outset that this is going to be a truce and not exactly a resolution of the trade war. Would you care to amplify that? And secondly, in regard to the trilateral meeting between President Trump, Prime Minister Abe, and Prime Minister Modi, what do you expect from those talks? Thank you.

KAHLER: Yes, I mentioned the truce because the issues that the United States has put on the table with China are issues that cannot be resolved in a single meeting and would require extensive negotiations.

So I think what we will want to see coming out of this summit, if you want to see at least a truce to the trade war and not an escalation of it, would be some communique from Trump and Xi that the United States would suspend any new tariffs, without rolling back the ones that have already been imposed on China.

China presumably would also maintain the tariffs it’s imposed on the United States without imposing any new tariffs. And there would be an agreement that there would be negotiations on these outstanding issues, such as intellectual-property theft, forced transfer of technology, and the like. These are very complicated issues. And some of the deeper issues, like subsidies, which the United States has put on the table, go to the very core of the economic model of development that China under Xi Jinping has endorsed.

So these are not the sorts of things that are going to be resolved easily, if they can be resolved at all, especially when you get into the deeper issues of industrial policy. So that’s why I think the best that anyone is expecting from this meeting—and I think you have to be optimistic to expect even a truce—is exactly that. It’s just a standstill in the conflict without a further escalation.

Whether you can get a resolution of these larger issues is a very difficult question. And once again, it’s not clear what the bottom line of the United States is. Some want to see us disentangle ourselves from China altogether—in other words, roll back economic interdependence with China, not just resolve these issues of policy. That would be an even more—that suggests that we’re going into some sort of economic cold war with China. But that I would not say is a consensus position. That is just the position of some that has been voiced.

So the United States has to figure out what it wants as its bottom line, which is going to be complicated. And China has to figure out what it wants as its bottom line. But that’s not going to happen in Buenos Aires.

With regard to the trilateral, here I think it’s interesting that it is going to be a trilateral meeting among India, Japan, and the United States, which suggests something of a deepening of what has already happened because of the rise of China among those three countries in what is now being called the Indo-Pacific.

So the fact that Trump has agreed to a meeting with these two leaders rather than having individual one-on-one leaders, and the fact that they’ve agreed to this format, suggests that this trilateralism, which is three members, not including Australia, the Quad—it’s interesting that Australia is not part of this—suggests that there is something to be discussed, and that something is probably related to China, but also possibly to economic issues as well.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Jessica Donati with The Wall Street Journal.

Q: Hello. Hi. Thanks for doing this.

I was wondering if you could answer two questions. The first one is, do you have—this is for Steven Cook, by the way—why is it, do you think, that Trump isn’t going to meet with the crown prince this time? Should we take this as a signal towards the kingdom and perhaps towards Turkey?

And I was also wondering, where does Turkey stand now with the administration in a very general way? Because over the summer, obviously, the relationship was at one of the lowest points since perhaps 1920s. So I was wondering, how quickly have they managed to repair relations by now?

KAHLER: Steven?

COOK: Yeah, thank you. Let me take those in reverse order.

As I said, the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson in mid-October did begin a dialogue between the two governments. Up until that point, from late July up until then, the dialogue was mostly happening via Twitter. But the dialogue hasn’t really gotten very far. The tone may be different, may be better, but there are these four outstanding issues between the two governments that I outlined—the relationship with the YPG, the Halkbank, the Gülenists, and—pardon me—and the exemption on Iranian oil. And, of course, the United States has its own complaints specifically with regard to the S-400 sale, which Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said we will be going forward with.

And just today, President Erdogan has had very, very tough words for the United States over its plan to build observation posts throughout northeastern Syria. Essentially, from the Turkish perspective, this looks like the very beginnings of an autonomous zone for the Kurds, which is an absolute red line for the Turks.

So, yes, there is a dialogue between the two countries, but there are a range of very, very difficult issues between the two countries. And it’s a function of the fact that neither country shares—they don’t share interests, don’t share priorities, don’t have the same policies. They just generally look at the world in a very, very different way.

If you’d like a fuller explication of that, you can check out my new Council special report on U.S.-Turkey relations called Neither Friend nor Foe. You can find it at

On the question of the president meeting with the crown prince, I have to apologize. I don’t really know. I think that the administration has made it clear that it opposes any effort on the part of Congress to drive a wedge between the United States and Saudi Arabia. This may just be a function of the fact that the president of the United States is very much in demand and has other meetings, and there’s really nothing for the crown prince and the president to talk about. The president has clearly sought to deflect the international outcry over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and shielding the crown prince. So really what else is—what is there for them to talk about?

KAHLER: Thank you.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Shelong Yang (ph) with Exuma News Agency.

Q: Hello.

My question is, do you expect any significant consensus on economic front on the G-20 meeting? Thanks.

KAHLER: Well, significant consensus, that’s an interesting question. (Laughs.) The agenda that is set by the Argentines, who’ve taken the lead with the sherpas in setting the agenda, is a quite extensive one. I think I would narrow your question to more interesting questions. Will there be an agreed communique at the G-20? As you may—as you probably know, at the APEC summit just a short time ago, there was not a—(phone rings)—of—because of the disagreements between the United States and China over trade in particular.

So it’s conceivable at this particular summit there could also be a breakdown to the degree there isn’t a communique. I think there’s a great deal of pressure that there should be such a communique. There apparently is disagreement over migration. From earlier reports, the Argentine sherpa has suggested there’s disagreement over migration, trade, as you would expect, and, of course, climate, which was a major issue at the Hamburg summit last year, where the United States was the outlier and the other nineteen—it was basically the G-19 versus one.

So one could imagine on any of these issues, and possibly some others, that there would be such substantial disagreement that we would not get an agreed communique. I suspect there’s going to be a great deal of pressure that there will be some kind of agreed communique, but it will probably sidestep many of these major issues.

Is there exact—is there, in fact, an international consensus on many of these issues? That’s a much more difficult question to answer. Especially on trade these days, there’s obviously a position in the United States which is—in the Trump administration—which is substantially different from that in other industrialized countries, as well as China, on climate as well. So I think the question is not whether there is a consensus but whether we can actually paper over the differences to the degree that the summit will not end without a communique, which would be a first.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Shin Lu (ph) with Exuma News Agency.

Q: Hi. Hi there. Thanks for doing this for us.

And I have two questions. One is about the U.S. intention of withdrawing from the INF Treaty. So this is also supposed to be the topic between the meeting of Trump and Putin. So do you think that U.S. withdrawal from this treaty is a done thing even before their meeting, or do you think there’s still a chance that Trump and Putin could just work up something to save this treaty?

And next question is about U.S. Vice President Pence’s stance on China. It seems that Pence was, during his Asia trip, is kind of tougher, even compared with Trump himself. So how would you interpret this thing, if it’s like a good-cop, bad-cop thing, or do you think it’s coordinated, just a gesture between Trump and Pence, or is there something else? Thank you.

KAHLER: Steve, why don’t you start? And I’ll take the second question.


It is interesting that the administration did not actually complete the paperwork, as they called it, for withdrawing from the INF Treaty. They only announced their intention to do so. And Bolton said he didn’t have any doubt that this would happen. But there are reports that some members of the administration have been trying to prolong the discussion and perhaps to find a different approach.

The position of the Russians has been to criticize the American action and to warn of steps that they fear the United States might take, including introducing ground-launch cruise missiles and ballistic missiles in a(n) over-five-hundred-kilometer range into Europe, and particularly on their periphery. They haven’t said that the treaty should definitely be—definitely be preserved.

So one question is, of course, the one that you pose, which is, is the United States going to go forward and complete the withdrawal? The other possibility, of course, is that the withdrawal will be folded into a broader framework. If the easiest agreement that you could get to come out of a Putin-Trump meeting would be to resume discussions on what the Russians and Americans have for some time called strategic stability—and you could put the INF Treaty into that framework and decide that you were postponing the withdrawal for some time, pending discussions.

In fact, one of the issues that is supposed to be part of the strategic stability discussion would be renewal of the New START treaty of 2011, and that would in some ways be easier for the United States to do if it had gotten out of the INF Treaty and had shown that it was not undertaking any new agreements with the Russians while they were violating other ones.

Another possibility is that you could end up deferring this to Putin’s visit to Washington, but as I said earlier, I think that that visit is probably an open question now, and one shouldn’t take for granted that it will happen.

Miles, over to you.

KAHLER: Yeah, thanks.

Well, on the question of—you’re quite right to note that Vice President Pence in two different venues—one at the Hudson—his speech at the Hudson Institute and the second one at the APEC summit—has certainly positioned himself as very much on the hawkish side of the debate about China policy and the United States. Whether this is a strategic move on the administration’s part is hard to say, partly because the president himself is both a bad cop and a good cop, sometimes in the same day, so—and the administration itself seems a bit incoherent in what it wants from China.

Certainly, I would say, in the broader U.S. debate over China policy, which is quite active, there has definitely been a shift, to my observations, definitely a shift toward a much less accommodating and much less understanding line about China than there was even in the latter years of the Obama administration, although the shift certainly began well before Trump took office.

I’d say the perspective, the consensus is still rather broad and it ranges from people like Jeffrey Bader at Brookings or Henry Paulson, the former secretary of the Treasury, who I recommend to you a talk that he gave recently, which is posted online. These are very—individuals who still think engagement must be undertaken but clearly feel that the outcomes, in terms of what has happened in China and also in terms of Chinese policies toward the United States and the rest of the world, have been disappointing and certainly do not match American interests.

On the other hand, you have Vice President Pence and much more hawkish members of the policy community who view the end of engagement, essentially. It doesn’t mean open hostility or some sort of new Cold War, yet, but the list of grievances that they have with China is very, very long and it’s well beyond trade, as you know if you looked at Vice President Pence’s statements.

So I think there’s still a range of sentiment within the United States. I think the consensus has definitely shifted toward a much harder, much less accommodating line toward China. And this is not just the result of changes in politics in the United States; I think it’s a result of perceptions of where Chinese policy has gone under President Xi Jinping in the last few years. And these views are also shared, although somewhat more quietly, in Europe and Japan and elsewhere.

Next question.


KAHLER: Go ahead.

SESTANOVICH: Can I add one other thing to this, just since—when a Chinese journalist asks about the INF Treaty, you know one of the issues is—(laughs)—that is at play here is what it means for China. As you know, the administration justified the withdrawal, in very significant part, not only by Russian violations of the treaty but by the difficulty countering China’s buildup. And it—and that is, itself, part of the sort of harder-line consensus that you were just describing a moment ago. A sense that somewhere down the road the United States is going to need weapons to deter China’s buildup or to counter China’s buildup that are prohibited by the INF Treaty.

I might mention that there is one other slightly kind of potentially clever calculus at work in what the administration has done about the INF Treaty. And that is the willingness to encourage Russia to build up a missile force against China in its—in the Russian far east. That’s now prohibited by the INF Treaty. But if the INF Treaty collapses, one of the things that Russia can do is build up forces that it is now not allowed to do. And I believe that some people in the administration are hoping that Russia will do exactly that, and that you will add an extra military counterweight to the Chinese buildup by relaxing the restrictions on Russia that the INF Treaty has imposed.

KAHLER: That’s an interesting angle. Back to the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question will come from Jim Dingman with Pacifica Radio.

Q: Yeah, hi. Thanks a lot for your comments. First, a question to Steve Cook. In The Washington Post in the past few days there was a report, I believe written by David Ignatius, on the issue that Saudi Arabia was actually sending abroad hit teams, along the lines of what happened to Khashoggi. And I was wondering if you could comment on your reaction to that, it’s verity, or whatnot. And secondly, is Trump indeed adopting an autocratic policy in terms of political economy? Is that simply addressed his perception of his political coalition domestically? Or is there some teeth to that? I’d sort of be curious to hear what the whole panel says.

KAHLER: Steven, go ahead.

COOK: Sure. David Ignatius’ piece in The Washington Post was a rather extraordinary one. Chock full of details that I think only Ignatius, though his contacts with various governments, can surface. As far as the existence of Saudi hit teams and their sending people out across the globe to either bring people back or disappear them, this is something that’s not entirely surprising to me at all. Keep in mind that Mohammad Bin Salman has sought to accumulate power in a way that is more reminiscent of his grandfather, who ruled without any kind of—any kind of problems, without having to form consensus within a large royal family, unlike his sons who have had to rule by consensus. And only after an elaborate and long efforts to reach consensus does the Saudi king offer a decree that everyone obeys.

Mohammad Bin Salman has wanted to break that pattern and accumulate all the political power for himself. One of the ways that he has done that has been trying to eliminate his rivals, both in an informal way, as well as—and politically, by political infighting—as well as eliminating rivals by arresting them and, in cases, killing them. Looking around the world and what the Russians have done, what the Turks are attempting to do with their Gülenist enemies, what the Israelis have done, what Iranians have done, the Saudis have said: We can do that too. And I think that’s the failed rendition that made up a big part of Ignatius’ piece, as well as the killing of Jamal Khashoggi demonstrates this effort.

SESTANOVICH: On the second question, I assume you were talking about economic autocracy, is that correct? Just to get a clarification.

COOK: Correct.

KAHLER: Yeah. Well, there’s a great moment in the Woodward book—

MR.     : (Off mic.)

KAHLER: I’m sorry?

(No audible reply.)

There’s a moment in the Woodward book, Fear, in which he simply writes down on a piece of paper, “Trade is bad.” His views, his beliefs—the president’s personal beliefs about trade are long-standing. They are very deeply held, I think. And they really are centered on the idea that trade is a zero-sum game. If you win, we lose. Tariffs are a good weapon to use. Trade wars are easy to win, as he put it. Now, whether all of this is a strategy to extract better deals on trade, or whether his image of where he wants the U.S. economy to go is, as you point out, more autarkic, more closed to the international economy is difficult to say. In any case, he is president, but he doesn’t—he doesn’t necessarily drive trade policy. Congress has a lot to say about this, if it chooses to.

I don’t think that certainly the U.S. business community is very interested in an autarkic trade policy; that’s for sure. And certainly there’s a lot of pressure from U.S. agriculture against such a policy. So if you’re thinking about, you know, winning elections, which I think Trump does think about a lot, some parts of his base might sign on to such a kind of an extreme view of trade policy, but it’s not clear to me that that’s a winning election formula for him and for the Republican Party. And it’s not clear to me, as I said, even for the president, whether this is a strategy or whether this really is the image of where he wants the United States to go.

The administration certainly has used—has wielded trade weapons that we have not seen used in the past, such as the use of tariffs on the grounds of national security. Whether this is pointing us toward a more closed American economy in the future overall or whether this is just something that’s going to lead to future trade opening—used as a weapon to force trade opening is the big question. I think you’ve raised that, and that’s a big question.

I don’t know if the other members of the panel want to comment on that or not.

Steve or Stephen?

SESTANOVICH: Miles, I would just add this: that there’s a broader lack of clarity in the entire approach that Trump shows toward cooperation with other countries, because it’s unclear whether it’s just transactional or whether there is some cooperative framework that he could envision that would be advantageous for the United States.

When he says, I’m a nationalist, when he says, America first and I assume other countries will pursue their interests first, there’s a—you know, there’s a kind of realist clarity to that which assumes—that is that other countries have conflicting interests and that’s how you—that’s your starting point for trying to develop relations with them. But what Trump hasn’t ever sketched in is whether there’s some broader, deeper, long-lasting set of cooperative arrangements that would make it valuable to, for example, go to the G-20—(laughs)—or have the WTO or have climate agreements. And there, I think, the experience of governing, which usually teaches presidents that they, you know, there actually is, as painful as these multilateral gatherings are, there’s some value in creating these frameworks. It doesn’t seem to have had that effect on Trump. He kind of—he retains his skepticism toward the entire enterprise.

KAHLER: No, I think that’s perfectly fair. He has not been socialized, as we would say, at all.


KAHLER: (Laughs.) And less socialized with our traditional allies than he has been with some of the authoritarian leaders that he seems to take a shine to, so it’s a fascinating psychological dimension to something here.

But as I say, he is a politician in the middle of a political process, and the interesting question is, you know, even though we have a somewhat imperial president, seeing how far he can drive this process, especially on the economic front, and especially if there turn out to be negative consequences. We have to remember, everything is being shaped now by the fact that the U.S. economy is booming relative to the rest of the world. That is not going to persist, it’s fairly—I think it’s fairly safe to say. And when that starts to end—and it’s interesting, there have been reports even this week that Trump has been shaken by what has happened to the stock market this year and also what happened with—the announcement of closing of plants by GM just in the last few days. So I think all of this could at least cause him to question a few of his assumptions, but he holds to them very, very strenuously.

Next question?

OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will come from Alex Wong (sp), a student.

Q: Yeah, hi. Thank you so much for the conversation. I guess, my question is, it’s been three years since Trump’s election. Do you feel like the international community, these G-19 leaders, have figured out a way of working with him? Do you think the international community’s consensus is that he is just him or that American policy towards the rest of the world has fundamentally changed? And also, do you feel like there’s some consensus within the community to work together against Trump on some of the issues that he seems to be an outlier?

KAHLER: Let me turn to both Stephen and Steven, see what you think about that, and I’ll have something at the end. (Laughter.)

(Inaudible)—perspectives or your general perspective?

COOK: Let me just say that it’s clear to me that the Saudis, of all people, had figured out how to woo the president, and I think you see some of the fruits of this, by his willingness to defy the considered judgment of the Central Intelligence Agency on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. In the part of the world that I focus on, the Middle East, there is much more—there’s greater consensus among the leaders and the Trump administration on what needs to be done. So you don’t see as many problems as you do, for example, with Europe and other parts of the world, the exception there, of course, being Turkey where there are very real differences. But when it comes to Israel, when it comes to Saudi Arabia, when it comes to United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt, there generally is a strategic consensus on what—on the problems in the region and how to handle them. So you see less of the kind of working against the president and the United States than you do in, for example, in Europe on—whether it’s the JCPOA or climate change. But I’ll leave that to Steve and Miles to discuss. Thanks.

KAHLER: So a sword dance is a good idea if you want to handle Trump; is that what you’re saying? (Laughter.)

COOK: Exactly. Exactly. (Laughs.)

SESTANOVICH: I think there is less confidence in general that you can make flattery and sort of economic concessions of one sort or another add up to a more stable and predictable relationship with Trump. But, you know, different governments are going to have different conclusions about this.

One of the interesting parts of your very big, multipart question is whether other countries are seeing reasons to cooperate with each other more closely than they used to, and I’d give you—I think the answer to that is yes, because the United States, which for a long period of time was— advertised itself as the predictable and stable factor in a lot of other countries’ calculations, is now a much less predictable factor.

In the case of, say, the Russians and the Turks—we’ve been talking about both of them—you see a much more productive, ongoing, steady interaction about Syria that essentially leaves the United States out, because there’s less confidence that you can actually come up with an arrangement that is valuable and it sticks.

You see—I think Steven would agree—more interaction between the Israelis and the Saudis, and I would say some of that has to do not just with the fact that they’re both favored friends of the president but actually a sense that, you know, you may have to be able to start developing lines of policy that don’t depend on American support. And certainly in Europe you have—this is the big issue that Europeans are addressing, not just this month or this year but in, you know, for the rest of the Trump term, however long it lasts: Does Europe need to develop its own mechanisms for dealing with some of the problems that used to do jointly with the United States? That’s why you see people talking about a European army; that’s why you see the development of alternative payment systems in order to hold together the deal with Iran.

This is a trend that we have only begun to watch, but if the United States sticks to the kinds of policies that the president has outlined, you’re going to see this in every corner of the world.

KAHLER: I’m afraid we’ve reached the end of our hour. I’d just add to what Steve said; I think he put it very well that the United States had always been seen as, despite the oscillations between administrations, as pretty much an anchor in the international system. Some liked it, some didn’t like it, but it was stable and predictable. I think, given the political polarization in the United States and the experience of Donald Trump, countries will now ask whether that anchor exists any longer, even long after Donald Trump has left the scene. I think that’s the big question that will be confronting many countries, and is already confronting them around the world.

In any case, let me thank Steve Sestanovich and Steven Cook, and thank you all for joining us on this call. As I mentioned before, the call has been on the record; the conversation is on the record. The transcript will be posted, And as some of speakers have already mentioned, there are many other materials about the issues we discussed on, and I recommend it to you.

Thank you, and good afternoon.

Most Recent

Top Stories on CFR


The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.


Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The United States may come to rue its failure to get its fiscal house in order.