Here’s the bottom line on President Trump’s time in Hamburg, Germany: The United States is no longer the star on the world stage. A man who strives always to be the center of attention managed to relinquish the leading role that this nation has played since winning World War II.
President Trump's highly-anticipated tete-a-tete with Russian leader Vladimir Putin simply served as a sideshow to the main event, which was the meeting of the G-20. It was an important and instructive sideshow but probably not the one that will mean the most for America going forward.
While it’s no surprise that Putin adamantly denied Russia's interference in the U.S. election, his ability to get away with that fiction does come as something of a shock. No matter who said what to whom in that cozy confab, it’s clear that Putin will pay no price for his nation’s meddling in the fundamental exercise of democracy in the United States of America.
That’s a big win for him.
The mere fact of the meeting was itself a victory for Putin. Only Russia's nuclear arsenal makes that country anything more than a bit player internationally. But all of the hoopla over the encounter between the two leaders had the laughable effect of putting a nation whose gross domestic product ranks lower than Italy’s on a par with the U.S.
Meanwhile nations with far larger economies were quietly going about the business of dealing with trade and climate, issues that could have much more impact on the lives of average Americans than anything that happened in the session with Putin.
The other G-20 countries worked into the early hours this morning before being able to produce a statement on trade that the U.S. would endorse. Trump continues to insist that past U.S. presidents have played the sucker, getting taken on trade deals, despite the huge role foreign trade plays in the United States economy. Last year, U.S. foreign trade accounted for $5 trillion in economic activity, about evenly split between imports and exports, with China alone importing $160 billion of U.S. goods and services.
The specter that Trump might impose a tariff on imported steel hung heavily over the negotiators in Hamburg as they crafted their communique. If the president actually were to follow through on that threat it would likely set off an international trade war that would hit Americans squarely in their pocketbooks. Not only would thousands of workers whose products are exported be affected, so would every consumer in the country.
And on climate, the president’s intransigence proved intractable. To the great distress of G-20 Chairperson Angela Merkel, the communique issued on that subject was signed by the G-19, not the full 20. Trump’s unwillingness to participate in international efforts to fight climate change is not only dangerous to the health and safety of every person on the planet, it’s also economically shortsighted.
Job growth in this country is colored green, as companies compete to use energy more cleanly and efficiently and to find ways to offset the effects of a changing climate.
Last year, more Americans were employed in “clean energy” jobs than in the fossil fuel industry. The president’s refusal to recognize that reality doesn’t make him look strong. It makes him look irrelevant.
We don’t know what tricks Vladimir Putin has up his sleeve as he heads back to Moscow unscathed by even a gentle scolding for undermining American democracy. And we probably won’t know for a while. It took Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev a few months to build the Berlin Wall after he shellacked John F. Kennedy at their first meeting.
We do know this: When President Trump left the G-20 today, the United States was no longer leading that group of the world’s most important nations. But the other members of that elite international community made their choice. They will continue to deal cooperatively on crucial matters facing the future, with or without America.
Cokie Roberts is a political commentator for ABC News.