The joint communiqué addressed U.S. concerns about trade, but that there was an agreement at all was significant.
Donald Trump’s administration has been loath to support statements in favor of global trade or efforts to combat climate change. Bush, who died late Friday, was by contrast an architect of the post–Cold War world order, an arch proponent of free trade and a committed multilateralist. The system—built in part by the 41st American president—is now in peril because the 45th appears to think that it is unfair to the United States. Donald Trump says that he believes in what he describes as fair trade, and has levied hefty tariffs on American trading partners, including Western allies, in an attempt to revive employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector. (Most economists say that this worldview is flawed.)
The G20, which draws together economies as diverse as Canada’s, South Africa’s, and Saudi Arabia’s, on Saturday agreed to reform the World Trade Organization and recognized the benefits of multilateral trade, but failed for the first time to speak out against “protectionism,” a concession to President Trump. Additionally, the group agreed to implement the Paris climate accord, but noted that Washington “reiterates its decision to withdraw.”
This year alone, Trump retracted U.S. support for a joint statement at the end of June’s G7 summit in Quebec. Last month, the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea ended without a joint statement because of disagreements between Washington and Beijing over the term unfair trade practices, which the president has accused all of America’s allies as well as China, its largest trading partner, of engaging in.
Bush’s approach differed markedly. He played an instrumental role in many of the developments that we now view as historic inevitabilities: the peaceful end of the Cold War, as well as Germany’s reunification and nato membership. For this, he worked with not only the alliance’s member states, but also Mikhail Gorbachev, assuring his Soviet counterpart that nato’s expansion was not a threat to Moscow. (Russia’s current leaders say they believe that the West broke its word.)
He also forged a broad military coalition of Western and Arab nations that intervened when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait, scoring what is arguably the last decisive U.S.-led military victory anywhere in the world. The U.S., by that time the lone global superpower, could have achieved any and all of these goals on its own, but Bush engaged America’s allies to build a global coalition.
In some ways, his time in office and Trump’s presence at the G20 are bookends to a specific era of trade. Bush’s biggest legacy—his critics, including Trump, would say liability—was the North American Free Trade Agreement, which created a free-trade zone across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Opponents of nafta blame it, in part, for the decline of American manufacturing (though automation would have ultimately replaced workers even if nafta didn’t exist). Trump was elected, in part, on vowing to rip up the deal. This week, he and the leaders of Canada and Mexico signed a new version of the agreement.
For Trump, trade, and indeed international relations, is a zero-sum game in which one nation’s rise must mean America’s decline. Bush had a different view.
“We know what works: Freedom works,” he said in his inaugural address in 1989. “We know what’s right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”