It may have been the strangest picture the world has yet seen of Angela Merkel. Donald Trump had just landed in Hamburg and flown with a fleet of helicopters to downtown Hamburg to meet with the German chancellor on Thursday night before the G-20 summit really got going. Merkel and the U.S. president stood in front of a light-blue backdrop to shake hands for the public.
Merkel has often admitted that she is incapable of displaying a poker face. But she has no choice but to try on this occasion. No matter what, she has to muster a friendly expression. She's the hostess after all. And she also might still have a chance of getting Trump on board for at least some kind of common climate protection policy - of getting him to at least fake some sort of interest in this multilateral summit. The chancellor valiantly grabs the president's right hand and turns to the cameras, attempting a beaming smile. But it fails in a most bizarre way.
The chancellor's strangely contorted face may just be one snapshot among many, but the image is also harbinger of things to come at this summit of the world's most powerful leaders: It is a show that lacks any real substance.
Which Heart of Europe?
It is likely that Merkel has initially thought things would turn out differently. When it became clear three years ago that Germany would host the 2017 G-20 summit, it sounded like it could be a wonderful election-year present. The German chancellor, surrounded by her global partners, could demonstrate resolution in the face of the world's problems and come up with some joint solutions.
That hope is likely to go unfulfilled.
On Thursday morning, Trump gave a remarkably bellicose speech in Warsaw in which he pledged America's absolute commitment to protecting the country. In doing so, took his listeners on such a detailed tour through the history of Poland's resistance to the German occupation that one could be forgiven for thinking that World War II only ended yesterday.
Poland, Trump said, "is the heart of Europe." The hidden message to the G-20 hostess in Hamburg was clear: You Germans aren't. The U.S. president seems to harbor an affinity for the right-wing, authoritarian Polish government, but he still had to continue on to Germany.
The Machos versus Merkel
On Thursday evening, it emerged that Trump had scheduled his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin right in the middle of the G-8 meeting on climate protection, an issue of particular importance to Merkel. Let them talk about global warming, seemed to be his approach, it doesn't exist anyway -- neither doese Trump find it terribly interesting. He's skipping the meeting together with Putin.
It is a joint affront to Merkel at the hands of a pair of macho leaders. But at least they seem to be getting along, at least when it comes to snubbing Merkel. After meeting with Trump, Merkel met with one of her primary adversaries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In several interviews given in the run-up to the G-20, Erdogan made clear that no concessions should be expected from him at the summit. Whatever she may have initially hoped, this summit will not be a pleasurable one for Angela Merkel.
Because the U.S. under Donald Trump cannot apparently be relied upon as a stable partner, Merkel is now placing her hopes in Chinese President Xi Jinping. On Wednesday, the pair welcomed two new panda bears from China to the the Berlin Zoo in the most amicable way possible. It may be that the Chinese leader seems in comparison to Trump to be a model of reason, it is an extremely dubious partnership that Merkel is attempting.
A dubious partnership: Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Berlin Zoo's new panda enclosure on WednesdayFoto: AXEL SCHMIDT/ REUTERS
A Win-Win for Few
One could point out China's record of executions or its treatment of Nobel Peace Prize winner and regime critic Liu Xiaobo, who only got released from prison after it became clear that he didn't have much longer to live. Or you could just quote the excuse used by former German national team member Lukas Podolski to turn down a number of offers to play for Chinese teams recently. "What happens behind the scenes there has nothing to do with football."
The same pretty much applies to this entire G-20 summit. Indeed, one can understand the wrath with which demonstrators in Hamburg are protesting against this meeting of the world's most powerful leaders. However good Merkel's intentions might be when it comes to talking the climate, aid for Africa, fighting epidemics and providing greater opportunities for women, the fact remains that the group meeting here is an exclusive club that is mostly interested in preserving a creaking system of financial market-driven capitalism.
Merkel often likes to speak of globalization as being a "win-win situation," possibly in the hope that this soundbite may stick the U.S. president's short-term memory for a few hours, but the only people sitting at the table here are the ones who have already won anyway. The rest of the world is allowed to watch and see if there are perhaps any scraps left for them. If it were the CEOs of the world's 20 largest corporations meeting in Hamburg, it would likely be at least a bit more honest.
Yes, of course, it's definitely better to speak to one another than not to. But why only within this exclusive circle? Martin Schulz, who is running as the center-left Social Democrats' chancellor candidate, and fellow SPD member and Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, have proposed holding such meetings at the United Nations in New York in the future. At least this would enable all countries to attend - and perhaps achieve true, global and democratically legitimate progress.
Images of Senseless Violence
But perhaps a miracle will happen and, ultimately, we will read in the closing statement of at least vague and minimal progress in global cooperation to fight climate change, hunger and poverty. Of course, nothing in it would be binding, but at least people wouldn't have to be ashamed that they brought an entire city to a standstill for the G-20 -- at a cost that is thus far incalculable and with almost military-like limitations on the freedom of movement of local residents.
More probable is that, only a few minutes after Air Force One takes off, Donald Trump will forget what exactly was spoken about at the G-20. And the next morning he'll post a tweet about the unfavorable appearance of some TV host's overweight dog and it will drive the news. The only images that will be burned into peoples' heads about the G-20 summit will be those of the senseless violence during the protests, the burning cars, the pepper spray and the water cannons.
"The G-20 is an informal forum for cooperation. This cooperation is based on shared fundamental values," Angela Merkel wrote in the summit's program. If only that were true.