November 30, 2018
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When you see pictures of smiling world leaders from the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, remember that the images do not depict reality.
The G20 summit is not a pleasant social gathering of nice people who all have the same values – or the same commitment to what we think of as civilization.
There will be a number of leaders in this meeting who have horrifying track records of breaking the rule of law, killing people, and routinely lying.
So, as you observe the grins, handshakes, and awestruck news coverage, don’t be fooled.
Countries that do follow the rule of law (such as Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Germany and India) will be meeting with countries with deep internal governance problems and countries with long histories of appalling violence and dishonesty.
Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico each have substantial problems with corruption. In addition, Mexico has had a large and growing problem of cartel violence, which threatens to shake the very fabric of its societal ability to govern itself. (More than 130 politicians and political operatives were assassinated in Mexico’s July 2018 elections, and cartel wars are killing hundreds of thousands more.)
At least with these three Latin American countries there is a pattern of trying to enforce the rule of law and a commitment to participating in a community of nations.
However, consider the countries that routinely defy our notions of common decency, the rule of law, and a minimum level of transparent honesty. In particular, look at Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and China.
This week, the liberal media attention will be on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is widely believed to have been directly or indirectly responsible for the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia is a very tough, family-run dictatorship, which still imprisons and executes people. As David Ignatius brilliantly reported, Crown Prince Salman has simultaneously implemented modernizing reforms and increased the level of violence and police state tactics.
However, the media should have a broader view of the dangerous and destructive leaders who will be at the G20.
Also in the room will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who tried to kill fellow Russians by poisoning them in England. Putin will be coming to Argentina fresh from the Russian assault on the Ukrainian Navy and in the middle of an ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine which Russia has fomented, financed, and led.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey is currently using the Khashoggi murder to embarrass his Saudi rivals. Of course, in 2017, the Erdoğan regime had more journalists in prison than any other country in the world, and he is running an increasingly repressive regime that seeks to undo the modernizing and secularizing reforms of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
President Xi Jinping of China proved his repressive nature has no sense of humor when he banned the new Winnie the Pooh movie because Pooh looks too much like Xi, and the Chinese people were making fun of him. Of course, banning Winnie the Pooh is a minor infringement compared to crushing the cultures and religious beliefs of the Tibetans and the Uighers. Nor does it touch Xi’s creation of a nationwide totalitarian scoring system to track and evaluate every single person in China. The Chinese approach to high tech dictatorship with facial recognition and massive data bases is increasingly admired by other autocratic leaders, and the Chinese will presently have a robust industry exporting tools of dictatorship (all of which will feed data back to a central Chinese repository giving Beijing more and more influence among the dictatorship nations).
It is useful to get these leaders together, but we should have no illusions about who they are and for what they stand.
The vision (maybe fantasy) of a “new world order” and the fantasy that an international community developing legal structures can replace sovereign nation states has to be replaced. Instead, we should have an honest conversation about how tough the world is and how ruthless some of its leaders are.
This is why the United States must emphasize our national security and economic interests – as well as caution about dealing with countries that are totally different from us and have competing ideas about what civilization should be.
As you watch the G20 coverage, remember who these leaders are and listen to see if reporters cover the summit as a genial Rotary Club meeting or the gathering of very tough, dangerous people that it is.
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