(MENAFN - Gulf Times) When US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin left the Group of 20 meetings in Germany this weekend, the worst that delegates had to say about him was that he'd been sent a little unprepared.
It would be far more serious for the global system of multilateral organisations, like the G-20, if unpreparedness from US officials were to morph into disinterest.
Mnuchin wasn't able to deliver a clear view on how the 'America First thrust of the Trump administration will mesh with the rules embodied in the World Trade Organisation system that currently stand — or even if the US will remain substantially engaged over the long term. As the administration is less than two months old, the former Goldman Sachs banker was given the benefit of the doubt when he didn't offer much detail.
But as the basics of Trump policy are diametrically opposed to the status quo, that still meant that on trade policy, delegates couldn't find much to say in unison.
The group set aside a previous pledge to avoid 'all forms of protectionism and signed up to an inoffensive statement about working 'to strengthen the contribution of trade instead.
Mnuchin made only one — longish — intervention during the main plenary debate in Baden-Baden, and when he did speak he read from a prepared statement, according to a person familiar with the matter, asking not to be identified as the session was private. Mnuchin's German counterpart, Wolfgang Schaeuble, admitted later that the American 'didn't have a mandate to negotiate new or creative wordings on trade policy.
That's not a huge problem for now, as the G-20 can bump the matter to a leaders' summit in July. By then, the US might have more deputies in place at the Treasury and Commerce departments, and have more to say.
G-20 delegates were pleased that a US representative was in front of them, and paying attention. Mnuchin said he'd had 18 bilaterals and meetings on the sidelines.
One of those was with Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie, whose delegation led the defence of the existing rules and whose nation has been a focal point for US claims of unfair trade. The two men agreed to make bilateral economic cooperation more effective and pragmatic, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
'He performed very well, Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. 'He's getting around, he's getting to know his colleagues, I think he sent some very positive messages in terms of engaging all the economies.
Coming into the meeting, one issue that had been problematic in previous G-20s — currency manipulation — was this time uncontroversial, partly because Mnuchin hasn't been in such a rush to label China a guilty party in that respect as his boss had been during the campaign.
But the mostly genteel talks in the spa-town of Baden-Baden can't hide the risk of a fundamental cleft opening up in economic policy. US unilateralism threatens to clash with everyone else, including countries like China who feel, as massive beneficiaries, duty bound to defend the current trade setup.
Indeed, Mnuchin signalled that neither he nor the rest of the administration is willing to be bound by commitments that the international community has already made.
'This is my first G20, he said at a press conference after the group published its final statement on Saturday. 'What was in the past communique was not necessarily relevant from my standpoint.
G-20 finance chiefs were disgruntled at the outcome of the meeting, if not with Mnuchin himself. Schaeuble said the fudged compromise was 'doesn't get us very far, and his Russian counterpart, Anton Siluanov, said the issue will 'need additional discussion. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin said he regrets that the talks 'didn't end in a satisfactory manner.