SOMETIMES a conference, a picture or even a tweet captures just perfectly the state of the world. For historians studying the 21st Century, the 2017 Group of 20 summit held in Hamburg this week will undoubtedly be remembered as having showcased just how quickly the world has indeed changed in the last six months.

Here are some rapid-fire key new trends:

The United States under President Donald Trump has abdicated its long-standing role as leader of the free world, the defender of liberal democracies and the promoter of a multilateral rules-based system. True, the US was on a path of retreat from the global stage under Barack Obama but the myth of the “indispensable nation” remained strong. As he turns his back on free trade, withdraws from the climate change accord and rages, rants and tweets against adversaries, migrants and Muslims, Trump has made clear that his “America First” policies are not just campaign stunts, but real policies with an impact both at home and abroad.

As the US turns inwards, the spotlight is on Europe as the standard-bearer of the liberal order. It’s a task that some in Europe are dying to take on. EU leaders make no secret of their readiness to defend free trade, stand by international agreements and forge new partnerships to ensure peace and stability in the Trump era. In a clear riposte to Trump’s anti-free trade stance, the EU and Japan signed a major new free trade agreement just ahead of the G20 summit, with both sides making clear the deal was meant as a signal of their commitment to fight protectionism. According to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, “It is a strong message to the world.”

Within Europe, it’s Germany, host of the G20 summit, which is being watched the most closely as the bloc’s undisputed leader. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may demur at being called “leader of the free world” — but for many she is the best candidate for the job, especially since Berlin can now count on working with Paris under President Emmanuel Macron to strengthen European unity.

But Europe has significant fault lines of its own. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are in open conflict with their EU partners over their harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers and restrictions on press freedom. The split between small and big EU members was in evidence last week as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called European lawmakers “ridiculous” for failing to turn up to an address by Malta’s prime minister, saying they should show more respect for smaller members of the bloc.

Juncker, himself from the small Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, was visibly annoyed as he watched the proceedings in the near empty parliamentary chamber in Strasbourg.

Outside Europe, all eyes are on China and President Xi Jinping whose public declarations of support for the climate change accord and strong pro-free trade stance have won him kudos in Europe. China’s multi-trillion dollar visionary Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with its vast connectivity networks across continents has also captured the world’s imagination. Not surprisingly, the Chinese leader was quite the hero at the G20 summit. But Beijing still has to deliver on opening up its own markets to foreign exports and investments and is under pressure to tame North Korea.

Despite continuing talk in Britain of its global ambitions, last year’s Brexiteer slogans of “Global Britain” and “taking back control” are beginning to sound tired and tedious. Contrary to what the politicians and others favouring a so-called “hard Brexit” may believe, Britain today is actually a diminished power, not a “strong and stable” one. As such, Prime Minister Theresa May — widely seen as a caretaker leader — made little impact at the Hamburg gathering.

While Europe defends the liberal system, Trump will find friends in Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who have more in common with the US leader than anyone in Western Europe. The Germany Chancellor has warned, however, that “anyone who thinks that they can solve the problems of this world with isolationism and protectionism is making an enormous mistake.”

Merkel insists that G20 leaders can and should send a message of determination as regards their great responsibility for the world and the need for international cooperation.

Unfortunately, the meeting — and others like it in the coming months — is expected to do the exact opposite by illustrating the divisions, discord and acrimony among some of the world’s leading nations. The message from Hamburg is quite simple: it’s a crazy world. Get used to it.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

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