While the historic summit between North Korea and the United States in Singapore has dominated the headlines, President Trump was anything but boring at the Group of Seven (G7) summit in Canada, where his actions reinforced America’s closest allies’ fears that the US-led international order is beginning to crumble because of internal Western disorder. The summit may leave a longer-term mark on history as when America lost its allies because of Trump’s behavior, despite being overshadowed by his meeting with America’s adversary Kim Jung-un.
In the wake of the 1973 oil crisis, the G7, which includes the most industrialized nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, began a yearly summit that soon became the pinnacle of America’s alliance-based international order. Despite intra-allied tensions during the Cold War and Iraq War and even with the inclusion and then exclusion of Russia, the G7 has remained a unified, critical platform for the US president to coordinate with like-minded democracies. The G7 has certified America’s role as global leader in the post-World War II international order, and the US president’s first-among-equals role at these gatherings makes him a central figure. As a result, all eyes were on Donald Trump as he arrived at his second G7 summit at an idyllic resort in the Canadian province of Quebec. It was meant to be a quick and quiet stop along his way to Singapore.
Having walked away from the Paris Climate Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the beginning of his administration and from the Iran Deal more recently, Trump has signaled a sharp departure from historical protocol. His abrupt style has left most of the G7 leaders resigned to seeking compromise over and above cooperation, so as to save face in presenting a unified front.
Rather than using the G7 summit as an opportunity to regroup and smooth things over face-to-face, Trump renewed his determination to proceed down the path of increased trade friction with the closest of US allies. This admittedly odd stance against our political friends stood in stark contrast with the president’s request for the reintegration of Russia back into the Group of Seven. His request comes four years after Russia had been expelled from the G8 for annexing Crimea. Russia’s ironic response this week, that the G7 was no longer of interest, was juxtaposed with the image of President Putin’s state visit to China, where he presided over the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with Chinese President Xi Jinping and fellow autocrats from Central Asia and South Asia.
At best, the 2018 G7 meeting was meant to serve as a practical multilateral institution to buttress America’s global interests while forging closer ties with its closest allies. At its least, the summit would have been just a talk-shop in advance of the historic Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Instead, President Trump arrived late for the opening discussions and left early for Singapore after giving his own separate press conference. While he reluctantly agreed to the final communiqué, he ultimately rescinded his support via Twitter a few hours later after taking offense to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s final press conference.
In devaluing the summit, Trump may have done irreparable damage to the G7 and weakened America’s standing among its allies. Distance has already formed between Trump and his closest European friend, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was quick to announce via Twitter his determination that the “G6” form a unified front against the United States’ evolving policies on trade.
President Trump’s worldview does not seem to ascribe value beyond individual transactions. For US allies that once undergirded American leadership around the world, this change in worldview has proved challenging. Trump has made no secret of his disdain for allies that don’t pay their “fair” share or for those who “take advantage” of America through trade deals. He is determined to put “America First,” a policy which close allies, including Canada, France, and Japan, have been trying to support by emphasizing the level of their investment in Trump’s America. Despite these attempts, they have now been rebuked by the Trump administration.
The White House’s senior trade representative Peter Navarro issued a speedy and visceral reaction to the G7 summit, stating that there was a “special place in hell” for allies that crossed the administration. After the sudden pullout of the Iran Deal, European Union President Donald Tusk tweeted, “with friends like these, who needs enemies.” The danger of trade wars that will go far beyond posturing to real domestic cost has now become a reality, even as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is on life-support.
The irony, of course, is that Trump has a better chance of averting a trade war with China, America’s strategic rival, and saving face during a made-for-TV summit with North Korea’s leader than with the G7, largely because of the disposition of his base and administration. While it is certainly a novel approach and there is merit in seeking accommodation with China and peace on the Korean Peninsula, allies like those represented within the G7 make America greater and stronger than doing it all alone.
Political scientists have already moved beyond the G7, G8, and G20 to what Ian Bremmer has coined the “G-Zero.” This emerging power vacuum in international politics, created by a decline of Western influence and the domestic focus of developing states, explains a new world in which no single country or group of countries has the ability or will to drive, economically or politically, a truly global agenda. Given how interconnected and global our world is, this can’t be a good thing.
Greater discernment in foreign alliances is critical, and perhaps the G7 has been in need of a shake-up for a long time. However, the outcome for the United States has been less than optimal. If Trump continues to send mixed messages, then that will force our allies to start hedging against us. Just one month earlier, Trump had hosted French President Macron in Washington only to miss the opportunity for a bilateral meeting with him at the G7. And while Trump just met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe a few days before the G7, he failed to give adequate attention to Japan’s concerns regarding any potential agreement with North Korea. In addition, picking fights with its neighbors doesn’t augur well for America when the entire tapestry of global affairs is woven with the threads of past cooperation. Whether in North Korea, Syria, or Iran, the prospects for peace will doubtless be determined on America’s ability to remain dependent on our partners and defensive toward our foes.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a recent contributor to Providence and serves as the Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan in the Office of the President at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk consultancy.
Photo Credit: President Donald Trump arrives at the G7 Summit on June 8, 2018. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.