The Knotty Problems of the G19

“Pull hard, and it’s quite likely to come undone.”

One early international junket that President(!) Trump will be expected to attend is the G20 summit in Hamburg on 7-8 July 2017.

Angela Merkel has just published the draft agenda, with a cool knot logo.g20-knot-logo

The image is a reef knot, of multicoloured strands – one rope in the red-yellow-black of Germany, the other in random colours presumably for the rest of the world. The knot symbolizes interdependence. But Berlin is a long way from the sea or the Alps, and nobody told the Chancellery that the reef knot is weak. Pull hard, and it’s quite likely to come undone.

The reef knot logo is a parapraxis, a Fehlleistung (mis-performance), a Freudian slip knot. (What a pity that Ernest Jones translated Freud’s elegant and lucid German coinage into poncey fake Greek bafflegab, and it stuck.) It unintentionally reflects globalisation today only too well, with nationalist rebellions against interdependence all over the place, not just in Britain with Brexit and the USA with Trump. The ties woven since 1945 are slipping dangerously.

The English name comes from one important function in a sailing ship: tying the foot of a sail (or in a square rigger, the head) to the boom or crosspiece. Here, ease of tying and untying is important. Failure under high loads is actually a plus: in a storm, the reef knots will give before the sail tears apart.


When sailors want to join two ropes, the simplest knot they use is the sheet bend. Sheet as in rope to control a sail, not sheet as in king-size. If you are planning to escape from Colditz using the second sort of sheets tied together, this is the simplest knot that gives you any chance. The free ends must end up on the same side: with all knots, you must get them exactly right to be safe.


The people who are most fussy about knot strength are mountain climbers and cavers. They trust their lives to nylon ropes which are smooth-surfaced and somewhat elastic, unlike manila hemp. These experts  recommend the double (or even triple) fisherman’s bend, which allows you to slide the two stoppers apart.


The very strongest is the alpine butterfly, which tests out at around 80% of the rope strength. It is very difficult to untie after load.


The Zeppelin bend is almost as strong, easy to untie, symmetrically pretty, and bears a famous German name.

Wikipedia is not impressed by the theory that the name comes from early use in the handling of airships. This story looks credible to me. When the Count was hiring ground crew for his dirigibles, the obvious recruitment pool was seamen on big sailing ships. Clippers sailed to Australia from Hamburg and other European ports and back for grain up to 1949. These men were heirs to 5,000 years of sail, and knew their ropes and knots.

If I were Merkel, I’d turn the mis-step to good use by using the Zeppelin knot for the result of the meeting. That is, if Trump does not turn it into a disaster, as she must fear.


What are the chances here? How will Trump behave in Hamburg?

We can take it for granted that he will not achieve anything significant. It’s not that he is a sociopathic grifter and egomaniac: that is all in the day’s work for professional diplomats, who deal with such rulers all the time. It’s that he is a vain con-man who can’t be trusted for half an hour. It’s the difference between a Khamenei or a Putin, thugs you can make a deal with, and Kim Jong-Un or Gaddafi, nutjobs you can’t rely on to act in their own interests. Trump clearly falls into the second group. Iranian President Rouhani seems to have already come to this conclusion, with a flat refusal to renegotiate the nuclear weapons deal, even under a pretty clear threat of war. The rest of the G20 will too. If they want to get anything of substance done, they will have to become the G19+1, leaving Trump as the village idiot in the corner.

The rules of the institution are no help to Trump here. Summits like the G20 one are not real international organisations, like the small one I worked for. These have statutes, governing bodies, rules of procedure, and professional standing secretariats. In short, classic bureaucracies. These are rigid and slow, but they can get real work done if the governments in charge want it. Even a simple convention on recognition of qualifications (my baby) required draft after draft, negotiating session after negotiating session. If you want this, you have to phone up the UN, the OECD, the WHO, the Council of Europe, or another similar organisation, and set the slow wheels grinding.

Foreign offices don’t like international organisations much, as they correctly see them as institutional rivals. So they have a habit of setting up free-floating groupings not attached to any existing organisation. Now they are free from the likes of me and can practice real diplomacy again! There are two snags. One is that to get real work done, you have to subcontract it to an actual organisation with an expert staff, see above. Merkel’s good ideas on drug-resistant microbes will end up as a WHO project or nothing. The second is that multilateral work of any sort has its own tedious logic, which is not that of bilateral deals. The swashbuckling diplomats very quickly learn to write in communiqué-speak.

Anyway, as I understand it the G20 procedure is therefore entirely in the hands of the host country, that is Germany. Merkel can cut Trump’s microphone if he overshoots his allocated time, or have the communiqué adopted by the majority. She will try very hard to avoid either, but if the alternative is disruption by Trump and complete failure, she is quite tough enough to do the necessary.

There is no procedure for changing the agenda either. The way I read the working draft, terrorism and migration are not in:

Migration and refugee movements, the fight against terrorism, money laundering and corruption will also be addressed during Germany’s G20 Presidency.

That is, maybe at ministerial-level meetings instead. Money laundering means putting the screws on tax havens, and will be fun for Trump.

The German agenda makes no other concessions to his world-view. As always, there is far too much for actual work on most of it. The general tone is of a document written by the bleeding heart tendency of Davos Man.

  • Overall slogan “Making globalisation benefit everybody”
  • Ensuring stable and resilient national economies: stability .. growth … structural reforms (JW: is this hoary nostrum still alive? ) … free and fair trade … sustainable global supply chains.
  • A global economy more fit for the future: realising the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change … digitisation … antimicrobial resistance … pandemics … empowering women.
  • Accepting responsibility: the G20 as a community of responsibility … sustainable economic progress in Africa.

Oh yes, and “civil society” (NGOs) will be invited to make proposals. (I’m submitting this post as a modest contribution from the blogosphere.)

Donald Trump will absolutely hate the style: long-winded and high-minded palavers that slowly inch the “international community” towards a consensus for doing something, as with climate change. More important, he also rejects the conventional assumptions that underpin not just the G20 but the whole menagerie of international institutions since 1944. The aim of peaceful international cooperation is to establish rules of conduct, not make deals. I doubt if any deals will be on offer. On his current trajectory he will be in a minority of one on everything. China will look good, with little effort and no concessions. So will the EU, in spite of its internal crisis of legitimacy. So he can go and be humiliated, or boycott and be humiliated.

He could be tying his own knot. And with it, much of the global status that his country earned in WWII and in its partly benign hegemony since.


[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]