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Steering a World in Disarray: Ten Summits to Watch in 2017

Author: Stewart Patrick, CFR
Jan 1, 2017

African Union Expert Brief Leaders pose for pictures during the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)


After a tumultuous 2016, the world holds its breath for what the coming year may bring. Angry populism is on the march. Great power relations are tense. The Middle East has imploded. Meanwhile, President-Elect Donald J. Trump proposes to upend U.S. foreign policy in areas from trade to climate, alliances to nonproliferation, terrorism to human rights. In a world in disarray, can multilateralism deliver? Ten major summits during 2017 will help provide an answer. Here’s what to look for at each summit.

European Union Summit (March 25, Rome). Last June, British voters caused a geopolitical earthquake by voting to leave the European Union (EU). UK Prime Minister Theresa May promises to invoke Article 50 by the end of March, starting the clock on the arduous, two-year negotiations over Brexit. That same month, leaders of the remaining twenty-seven EU member states will gather in the Eternal City to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome (1957), which established the European Economic Community among the original six (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany). They are billing the somber summit as the culmination of a six-month “political reflection on the future of the European Union,” intended to convince EU citizens that the bloc remains capable of controlling migration, providing security, and delivering economic growth. They have their work cut for them, given rising nativism, growing terrorist fears, high unemployment, and looming elections in several EU states, notably France and Germany. Host Italy, meanwhile, faces an uncertain future following the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi after a failed referendum.

G7 Summit (May 26–27, Taormina, Italy). Italy will play host again in late May, when leaders of seven of the most important advanced market democracies (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States) plus the EU will gather in this historic city on Sicily’s stunning Ionian coast. Appropriately—given the setting at the crossroads of the Mediterranean—the agenda will focus on the global migration crisis, which has hit Italy hard, as well as efforts to stabilize North Africa and the Middle East, from which many migrants and refugees have fled. But the real drama at President-Elect Trump’s first G7 summit will be whether Western powers remain united against Russia, which they suspended from the G8 in 2014, after its annexation of Crimea. The EU has already extended sanctions on Russia for another six months. But Trump has vowed to reset ties with Moscow and may go against his own party’s push for renewed sanctions.

NATO Leaders Summit (Date TBD, Brussels). U.S.-European differences could also be on display when Trump and the leaders of the other NATO member countries gather at the alliance’s gleaming new headquarters in Brussels. The alliance, unlike the building, is in need of repair. Baltic and East European states have been unnerved by Trump’s depiction of NATO as “obsolete” and his suggestion that U.S. defense guarantees be contingent on greater burden-sharing. The alliance may also be divided over how to confront and deter Russia, particularly if Trump continues to insist (with a certainty that has “horrified” close U.S. allies who know better) that Moscow did not hack the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Ocean Conference (June 5–9, New York). Thanks to the personal interest of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the world has devoted unprecedented attention over the past four years to protecting marine environments from pollution, overfishing, and acidification. The critical question now is whether this momentum will continue. In early June the United Nations will host “Our Oceans, Our Future.” This high-level meeting will support implementation of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 14, designed to encourage conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources therein. The world will be looking to the Trump administration for signals about where it stands when it comes to protecting a vast ecosystem critical to supporting life on Earth.

G20 Summit (July 7–8, Hamburg, Germany). The new geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Trump era will come into sharper focus in July, when the biggest developed and developing countries meet in Hamburg. Chancellor Angela Merkel, this year’s host, has emerged as the world’s most important defender of globalization. She has chosen “shaping an interconnected world” as the theme of this year’s summit. Her priorities include fostering economic resilience, advancing sustainable development, empowering women, implementing the Paris climate agreement, and advancing peace and development in Africa. Beyond the final communiqué of commitments, observers will be focusing on interactions between President Trump and his major non-Western counterparts, particularly Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and Narendra Modi of India.

BRICS Summit (September, Xiamen, China). At the end of the summer, five of the world’s biggest emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—will gather in China for the ninth BRICS summit. The choice of location is noteworthy. The coastal city of Xiamen was one of the nation’s first special economic zones, serving as a window to the global economy and a destination for foreign investment. Xiamen also sits right across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan itself, which thanks to President-Elect Trump has reemerged as a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations. Look to President Xi to use the summit to advance solidarity within the heterogeneous BRICS bloc, as well as elevate its diplomatic profile as a potential geopolitical and economic counterweight to the West.

Opening of UN General Assembly (September 12–25, New York). In September, President Trump will deliver his maiden speech to the United Nations. Back in 2012, he complained about the “cheap 12 inch sq. marble tiles behind the speaker at UN,” tweeting that he would be happy to replace them with “beautiful marble slabs” if asked. More recently the president-elect has suggested he has more thorough UN remodeling in mind. “The United Nations has such great potential,” he tweeted after the Security Council’s December 23 vote against Israel’s settlement policy. “But right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. Sad!” The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time World leaders will be paying close attention to both the tone and substance of his remarks. These may include a declaration that henceforth U.S. contributions to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets (currently assessed annually) will be treated as purely “voluntary.” For incoming Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, keeping U.S.-UN relations on an even keel will be a constant test.

ASEAN and East Asia Summits (April and November, Philippines). The coming year will be a big one for President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which holds the rotating chair of the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The Filipino strongman will host two ASEAN summits, in April (in Manila) and in November (at Clark Air Base in Luzon). The latter event will coincide with the East Asia Summit, where President Xi will surely tout his newly cozy relationship with Duterte. Less certain is whether President-Elect Trump will bother to show up and (if he does) what message he will send Duterte, Xi, and other attendees about maritime disputes in the South China Sea, as well as U.S. staying power in the region. The new Chinese-Filipino partnership suggests that rather than hedging against China’s rise, neighbors may be drawn into its orbit. This trend could accelerate if Trump offers no alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that he has scorned, leaving the Chinese-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as the only viable alternative.

UNFCCC COP 23 (November 6–17, Bonn, Germany). The sleepy former capital of West Germany will host 2017’s last major multilateral summit, the annual conference of parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite the location, the conference will in fact be organized by Fiji—marking the first time that a small island state will be given the honor. The conference should provide a bellwether for gauging the U.S. commitment to the global climate change agenda, including whether the new president will follow through on his pledge to cancel the Paris Accord. Fiji’s prime minister has already invited the president-elect to visit his nation to see the effects of climate change. Abdicating leadership in climate negotiations would be costly for the United States, as China—which has already donated $224 thousand to support Fiji’s presidency—is poised to fill the void.

There will be no shortage of international events to watch closely in 2017 as the world seeks clues for how the incoming Trump administration will navigate often thorny diplomatic questions and handle surprises that could upend the goals of a number of these meetings. Officials are advised to ring in the new year in style before the hard work begins.

This article also appears on The Internationalist.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.