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At the G-20, leaders discover ‘how difficult’ consensus has become

At the G-20, the world's most powerful leaders are discussing global governance, but in an era of populism and protectionism, forging multilateral agreement is a challenge. Plus, Russian aggression toward Ukraine and Saudi Arabia’s role in a high-profile murder set an ominous tone. Still, President Trump is optimistic about reaching a trade deal with China. Nick Schifrin reports from Buenos Aires.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Leaders of the world's wealthiest industrial nations began two days of meetings today at the G20 summit in Argentina.

    But, as our Nick Schifrin reports from the meeting site in Buenos Aires, it comes at a moment of global uncertainty.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The G20 leaders summit is supposed to be the premier event for global governance. It forces the world's most powerful leaders into a single room, and a single family photo, where everyone played nice, including European and Russian leaders.

    But in this era of populism, this family isn't united, in waving or in governing. There are major disagreements over climate change, over migration, as the U.S. resists language about the global refugee problem requiring a global response, and over steel and trade, where Chinese and American diplomats are battling.

    European diplomats say they feel increasingly alone in fighting for multilateralism, but they are still pushing, as European Council President Donald Tusk did today.

  • Donald Tusk:

    As this is a difficult moment for international cooperation, I would like to appeal to the leaders to use this summit, including the bilateral and informal exchanges, to seriously discuss real issues such as trade wars, the tragic situation in Syria and Yemen, and the Russian aggression in Ukraine.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's a reference to Russian ships ramming and firing on Ukrainian boats last Sunday, and detaining Ukrainian sailors paraded on Russian TV.

    Despite a busy week in the special counsel investigation, President Trump today reiterated Ukraine was the only reason he canceled a planned meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Hopefully, they will be able to settle it out soon, because we look forward to meeting with President Putin. But on the basis of what took place with respect to the ships and sailors, that was the sole reason.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But U.S.-Russia tension extends to nuclear arms control, the intermediate-range treaty the U.S. is threatening to leave, and the New START treaty that administration officials have questioned.

    Today, President Putin bemoaned not being able to discuss that.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    A possible withdrawal of the United States from intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and an ambiguous position in terms of extension of the strategic offensive arms treaty create risks of an uncontrollable arms race.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This year, Argentinean hosts promised to focus on how prosperity can be shared. But much of today's focus was on blood that's been shed.

    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is here, after being accused of ordering the death and dismemberment of critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi. During the family photo, he was in the corner, isolated. But he smiled at President Trump. He got a smile from French President Emmanuel Macron in a photo released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.

    And from Putin, during whose tenure there have been high-profile murders of political opponents, turncoat spies, and critical journalists, MBS, as he's widely known, got a high-five.

    A few miles from the summit venue, protesters remained peaceful as they criticized capitalism, and complained about Argentina's struggling economy.

    President Trump described the signing of the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada free trade agreement as a boon to the U.S. economy, but Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used the ceremony to push for the end of U.S.-instigated tariffs.

  • Justin Trudeau:

    And, Donald, it's all the more reason why we need to keep working to remove the tariffs on steel and aluminum between our countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On January 1, the U.S. is set to dramatically increase the tariffs on Chinese imports. Chinese President Xi Jinping is here, and will hold a high-stakes dinner with President Trump tomorrow night.

    Today, Mr. Trump hinted he was open to a deal.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're working very hard. If we could make a deal, that would be good. I think they want to, and I think we'd like to, and we will see.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Nick Schifrin joins me now.

    So, Nick, with regard to China, the U.S. is signaling that a deal is likely tomorrow?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, that's certainly what they're saying.

    Robert Lighthizer, the trade representative, said he would be — quote — "very surprised" if dinner wasn't successful. He's been a big hawk, and he will be at that dinner tomorrow night. So that's a sign at the very least that the talks between the two sides so far have gone well and the U.S. goes into this dinner with some confidence.

    Now, that doesn't mean that this is the end of what some analysts are calling a cold war between the U.S. and China. This is more like a cease-fire. And what will that look like? Perhaps, the U.S. might agree to suspend those tariffs that are supposed to go into effect on January 1, and the Chinese would agree to start buying farm and energy products again from the U.S.

    But the larger tensions, everything from intellectual property to access to the South China Sea, can't be solved, Judy, over dinner tomorrow night.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, Nick, you mentioned the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, of Saudi Arabia. How much of the focus there has been on leaders who are criticized as being authoritarian?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, as one critic of the president put it to me today, that basically a forum that is supposed to be for inclusive leadership has become a forum for authoritarians.

    And that's because of this kind of indelible image of Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin, the kind of high-five right there.

    But, look, this summit is about many things, as we just talked about the U.S. and China. President Trump met with President Moon of South Korea to talk about North Korea, and, of course, this document, the communique that leaders are still negotiating, still trying to figure out.

    So no matter how perhaps memorable that single image is, the fact is, at least substantively, this summit is not only about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So what is the status of the communique? What are you hearing? What do you expect?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There was a document this morning that the so-called sherpas, the diplomats who are negotiating this, had ready for the leaders. This afternoon, the leaders reviewed it.

    And the sherpas will go back tonight to talk about some of the disputes. So, a few of those, climate change, there has been an agreement, according the diplomats I have talked to, about an inclusion of the Paris climate accord, but they're still working on the wording there.

    Number two, multilateralism, which has been a big dispute between especially Europe and the United States, diplomats told me there's been an agreement on language along the lines of a commitment to working multilaterally on a rules-based order. And those words, rules-based order and multilateralism, had been a red line for the Europeans.

    But the big ones, migration, trade and steel, still a dispute. China pushing for language about free trade, the U.S. resisting any criticism of protectionism. Now, that's, of course, the dispute not only in Buenos Aires, but all over the world today.

    Already, in order to get to an agreement or try to get to an agreement, this document is down to about three pages. Last year's was 15 pages. So, they're trying to be much more vague.

    But, Judy, it just goes to show how difficult consensus is, not only here in Buenos Aires, but all over the world right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For sure.

    Nick Schifrin reporting on the G20 summit from Argentina, thank you, Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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