The G7 Disruptor

The G7 Disruptor
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Donald Trump at their joint press conference on 17 March 2017.The White House

The G7 is traditionally praised for its solidarity and collegiality, but the May 26–27 summit saw a very fragile partnership with an unapologetic disruptor at the table. The summit, and the NATO summit the day before, had its technical successes, but on critical issues the outcome was a heavy 6:1 disappointment.

In recent years the G7 has focused on rebuilding dynamism and sustainability across the global economy; however, new uncertainties plague the global political arena with new actors providing fuel for conflict and flux. Not formally on the agenda, these concerns filled the corridor discussions. Italy, as the weak host, faced an almost impossible task herding the cats.

Donald Trump, US superstar and disruptor, brought his bag of old tweets into unknown territory. For those at the table — presidents and PMs, all with their own agendas and voters to please — “America First” was not their favourite theme song. Trump was wary, unsure who around the table were true allies. None were soul mates, even if he made new Arab friends. The other G7 participants were equally wary, worrying which tweet would be his opening salvo, and which of them would draw the short straw and have to shoot down his ideas, pleading for consistency in his policy messaging.

Despite efforts to be conciliatory, on the key topics — protectionism, climate change, and migration — a six-person consensus faced an immovable Trump.  He was already in the NATO dog house for refusing to repeat the core mantra about group solidarity. NATO was left sounding more a club promoting US arms sales.

Several G7 members face fragile politics back home. Emerging as the boldest was France’s shiny new president, Emmanuel Macron, who even won a public handshake battle with Trump. British Prime Minister Theresa May was, in some ways, another lonely participant. She had group sympathy in light of the Manchester tragedy but made no progress on a softened side-deal on Brexit negotiations. Japan, often the silent one, worried about North Korean missiles and a new peacenik president in South Korea, not about confronting Trump on climate change.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s first meeting with Trump had not gone well, with Germany’s much-praised economic successes bluntly called unfair trading and euro-currency manipulation. The G7 meeting saw her as the strong voice of Europe, forcefully pressing the climate change agenda and trade liberalization. Signalling a critical shift in security policy, she said Europe could no longer fully depend on the US and the UK. Germany is now committed to playing a much stronger global leadership role, starting at the G20 summit, which she will chair in early July. This will be a very different, more inclusive meeting than the G7; more credible because all the major emerging economies are at the table — notably China, the absent elephant in the G7 room.

Clearly cognizant of Canada’s best friend turned frenemy, Trudeau has already felt Trump’s menace, including a potential “massive rewrite” of NAFTA. Although Trudeau did not emerge as a critical bridge-builder, he now has strong partners in Europe, notably Angela Merkel. He also found a potential new longer-term ally in France’s new, strong-minded leader, also youthful, also appointing the country’s first 50% female cabinet

The divided debate left hard-working “sherpas” searching for fragments, drafted weeks ago, now “acceptable” to list as successes in the consensus communique. This struggle led to a very thin 5 pages (the G7-2016 version ran to 32 pages). The main points were well-worn from past G7s, including unresolved calls to fight inequality and promote inclusive growth while promising loophole-free global tax rules. As usual, the politically or technically challenging topics will pass to the G20 for action.

The meeting showed a painfully divided group, no longer the traditional cosy club of Western leaders. Facing an unyielding, often bluntly disinterested Trump, this G7 made no meaningful pledge to avoid protectionism nor any joint commitment on climate change. Trump’s best “offer” was that he would speak about the Paris Agreement back home.

When he did — in a very forceful speech committing the US to quit — it was to equate the existential goal of saving our planet and its 7+ billion people from global warming to imaginary unfair actions by countries such as China and India designed to hurt the US economy, especially jobs. Most of the few thousand remaining America coal miners, however, are desperately hoping for better careers for themselves and their children. Not surprisingly, given the deep split among his advisors, including his own daughter, he left some wiggle room with a 4-year process to formally quit.

Strong new wording on fighting terrorism emerged — a topic where it was easier to find common ground, indeed even Trump enthusiasm, if not viable solutions. However, Trump blocked the needed consensus, to the great frustration of Merkel and the Italians chairing, on a new G7 program to help manage the torrent of refugees crossing in rickety boats from Libya, often with hundreds drowning.

Discreet whisperers may have asked, “Is it time for the G7 to gracefully retire as a private dining club for select Western leaders?” Or is it just waiting to be another “you’re fired” Trump victim? Canada, confirmed as host of the 2018 G7 summit, should be thinking about adding China and a couple of other BRICS as guests — maybe even disinviting the US or symbolically devoting the whole agenda to climate change. Trump’s action on climate change may be more damaging to global security than the war in Ukraine.

Trump flew home tweeting that his trip was a great success for himself and America. This was not the assessment of the others around the G7 table. Trudeau returns having gained new allies and confidents amongst European leaders — critically Merkel and Macron. They can work together to ease Merkel’s path to a more productive, frank, but collegial G20 meeting in July, one where climate change may become the key battleground.

An earlier version of this article was published in The Hill Times on 24 May 2017 as a preview of the May 26th summit. This updated version captures the highlights of what emerged and what issues remain for the international community, specifically the upcoming G20 summit.

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