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Triumph of internationalism or trumping of revisionism begins at the 2016 G20

The rise of authoritarianism and nationalist-driven aggressive foreign policy has become a ubiquitous phenomenon around the world today writes Joshua W. Walker. In particular, China and Russiahave been challenging the status quo by force from Crimea to the South China Sea. While divergent interests are guiding such self-aggrandizing behavior, Beijing and Moscow make strange bedfellows under one common agenda: the creation of a new geopolitical reality alternative to the liberal world order. As the host of this year’s G20, China has a global stage on which to make the case for both its “peaceful rise” but also its broader intensions as an increasingly global, rather than simply regional, power.

This year’s G20 in China has special significance not just because it has been moved up well in advance of the UN General Assembly and the U.S. presidential election. It also convenes relatively soon after the G7 in Japan, meaning it will be directly compared to the tone and outcomes of that meeting, ultimately setting the direction of global politics going forward: either reaffirming the belief in the liberal international order of the last half century or toward a sweeping tide of revisionist authoritarianism represented by China and Russia.

Given that all eyes will be on President Obama as he travels to Asia for the last time as president, China will have the chance to showcase its own broader ambitions and stability as host. Meanwhile in China’s own backyard, U.S. allies such as Japan and Korea along with other regional players like India and Indonesia will be watching for signs of renewed American investment and leadership in Asia — especially as the Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, continues to preach an “America First” isolationist and anti-alliance message, which seems to be poisoning the well for initiatives like the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal.

How the traditional leaders of the international order from the West and Japan can remain unified in the face of a Chinese ‘good cop’ charm offensive throughout the developing world and Russia’s ‘bad cop’ revisionist alternatives will have to be seen. But, it will most certainly make for great global pageantry. The dynamics ahead of this G20 stand apart from past years: criticism about America’s leadership in the Middle East has been loudest among its allies such as Turkey and Israel, rather than its traditional foes like Iran, and European allies are divided internally and externally over approaches to Russia and China. Much like last year’s G20 in Turkey, though, which presaged the souring of Turkish-Russian relations that have been restored in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup, the outcomes of this G20 could be indicative of what is to come this fall.

As China passes the G20 baton to Germany next year, Berlin will be the most important capital to watch given that Angela Merkel is now the longest serving and most stable statesman from the G7. She may not make an entrance like Japanese Prime Minister Abe whose Super Mario appearance at the Rio Olympics reminded everyone of what is to come in Tokyo 2020, but she will have to be steady at the helm of a somewhat unwieldy G20 currently buffeted by challenges and influences from all sides. Ultimately, this G20 will either confirm or presage the triumph of internationalism or the trumping of revisionism globally.

Joshua W. Walker is a non-resident transatlantic fellow at the German Marshal Fund (GMF). This article was first published by the GMF, more information can be found at

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