The online G20 held by Saudi Arabia over the weekend will go down as the strangest summit in the organization’s history, and perhaps also its most disappointing one.

In a testament to the working-from-home planet that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries spent Saturday and Sunday participating in a series of themed video conferences, which Saudi Arabia’s King Salman presided over.

They took turns speaking into the camera, in front of carefully chosen backdrops of flags and bookshelves, while their colleagues looked on with bland expressions. Some leaders – most notably U.S. President Donald Trump – skipped key parts of the summit, adding to the sensation of a world adrift.

Despite the pandemic and a collapsing global economy – phenomena that should have lent the proceedings a sense of urgency – the result of the virtual G20 was as uninspiring as the format. The final communiqué was filled with statements about ensuring equitable vaccine distribution and “leading the world in shaping a strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive post-COVID-19 era” – but devoid of details about how those admirable goals would be accomplished.

In 2009, it was the G20 that led the way out of the past financial crisis, with the leaders who met at that year’s summit in London announcing a US$1.1-trillion cash injection that helped pave the way to recovery. But there’s no co-ordinated global rescue coming this time, at least not yet.

“It’s lots of ‘we solemnly commit to doing what we are already doing,’ and nothing new,” John Kirton, director of the G20 research group at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, said of the summit’s final communiqué.

“All they did is what all the rest of us have been doing for the last nine months – say things to a computer screen with no confidence that the people at the other end were even listening.”

The communiqué declares that the leaders are “determined to continue to use all available policy tools as long as required to safeguard people’s lives, jobs and incomes, support the global economic recovery, and enhance the resilience of the financial system” – but gave few specifics about what that means.

In his closing remarks, King Salman pointed to the US$11-trillion that the G20 countries have already spent trying to keep their economies afloat. But that’s money that has already been spent, and there’s no co-ordinated action plan to deal with the coming months, which despite the optimism generated by vaccine breakthroughs, could be the bleakest yet.

The leaders did agree to prolong an agreement suspending debt-servicing payments by the world’s poorest countries for another six months. While that’s important for countries that need the cash to keep their own economies afloat – it was just extending an existing deal, rather than taking any new action.

In the first six months after it was announced, the Debt Service Suspension Initiative helped 46 countries defer US$5.7-billion in debt-service payments – but amid concerns that some countries, notably China, were not compelling state-owned banks to follow the DSSI, the program has thus far fallen short of the US$12-billion in payment relief that it was supposed to provide.

As soon as the summit meeting ended, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva released a statement calling in the group to go further and extend the debt relief offer to struggling middle-income countries as well.

The communiqué’s wording on vaccine access was similarly vague, vowing to “spare no effort” to ensure “affordable and equitable access for all people” while laying out no plan to ensure how the G20 would aid worldwide vaccine distribution.

It would be easy to blame the summit’s failure on the inability to hold the lavish in-person gathering that the Saudis, hosting for the first time, had been planning before the pandemic hit. Holding the summit online deprived leaders of a chance to meet each other – by planning or by accident – on the sidelines, lessening the chances of any substantial breakthroughs.

But the absence of personal contact was compounded by an absence of leadership. Where the success of the 2009 summit has been widely attributed to the skills of its host, British prime minister Gordon Brown, aided by the charisma of a newly elected U.S. president Barack Obama, the 2020 meeting was held by a Saudi royal family that seemed more interested in repairing its damaged reputation rather than forging any kind of consensus.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, spent much of his final G20 weekend golfing and tweeting conspiracy theories about his Nov. 3 election defeat – skipping both a key Saturday seminar focused on the pandemic, as well as the summit’s closing ceremony on Sunday.

When he did participate, Mr. Trump used his remarks to make partisan comments, rather than try and bring the group together. He told a Sunday seminar on “safeguarding the planet” that the Paris Agreement on combatting climate change – which Mr. Trump pulled his country out of – “was not designed to save the environment, it was designed to kill the U.S. economy.”

In an apparent reference to his unfounded claim that he, rather than president-elect Joe Biden, won the Nov. 3 election, Mr. Trump also seemed to suggest that he expected to somehow attend future G20 gatherings. “It’s been a great honour to work with you, and I look forward to working with you again for a long time,” he said during the summit’s opening session on Saturday.

In addition to refusing to formally concede the Nov. 3 election, Mr. Trump is reportedly also pondering another run for the presidency in 2024.

Mr. Trump, whose seat was filled by Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, wasn’t alone in his truancy. Adding to the sense that this year’s G20 was an optional affair, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also had lower-ranking officials occupying their seats during King Salman’s closing remarks. Those remarks included the formal passing of the group’s leadership to Italy, which will serve as the group’s host in 2021.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended, but said little during the parts of the conference that were accessible to the media, released a statement afterward saying that the virtual summit “was an opportunity to expand global efforts to fight COVID-19, restore economic growth and combat climate change.”

It was, Mr. Trudeau seemed to be acknowledging, an opportunity that was missed.

The Globe and Mail, November 22, 2020