The G7: Hard Talk or a Sleepwalk?

The G7: Hard Talk or a Sleepwalk?
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

by Jeremy Kinsman

As the Charlevoix G7 approaches, there is some question as to how the June 8–9 summit could play out as a Trumpian disaster. As veteran diplomat Jeremy Kinsman writes, if the disruptive president plays skunk at the La Malbaie garden party, Justin Trudeau should think about publicly calling him out on it and issuing a heavily qualified final communiqué.

Remember Pan Am Airlines? Eaton’s? Kodak? The Warsaw Pact? Brands that died because they didn’t keep up with competitors or with demand or with the pace of change. Will the G7 be the next to go? The outcome of the G7 Summit June 8–9 in Charlevoix may well decide.

The world’s press is coming to cover what they anticipate will be an epic dustup with President Trump over trade, climate, migration, populist nationalism, and the merits of the liberal international rules-based order. They are asking how the G7 can pretend to global leadership if its leading member is retreating from the world in pursuit of America first, “always America first?”

Though he was relatively quiescent at his first Summit in 2017 in Italy, Donald Trump has been feeling his unilateralist and nationalist oats since. In fact, the 2017 G7 meeting didn’t really get much done. If it happens again, the question arises: are they necessary — particularly as the US President seems to hold authoritarian strongmen in higher favour than G7 democratic allies?

The Canadian chair, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hopes to skirt conflict with an agenda of big-canvas hope. Its leitmotif, meant to be the “lens” through which to view everything else, is the Trudeau government’s timely mantra of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its proclamation is rhetorically uncontested even though the US is slashing funding to abortion-tolerant international health-care agencies in ways that will cause real damage to women and girls. Its uncontested reasonableness can’t evade the fact that the agenda’s other four items are highly divisive:

  1. Investing in inclusive growth “that works for everyone,” including “open trade,” which will have to counter evidence that in the G7, inclusivity trends are in the other direction.
  2. “Preparing for jobs of the future,” anticipating technological change, which evokes globalization’s export of manufacturing jobs.
  3. Climate change and clean growth, bound to challenge the Trump administration’s science-denying isolation.
  4. “Building a more peaceful and secure world.” Canada is safely mobilizing the G7 against the exclusion of Rohingyas and the subtraction of democracy in Venezuela, and seeking robust solidarity against Russian misbehaviour. But will the G7 together rededicate support for democratic institutions, the rule of law, and social trust at home?

Frank, open, and public disagreement could doom the G7 by exposing its disunity on the most important issues of the day. But the G7 could be equally doomed to irrelevance by an attempt to paper over fundamental differences in favour of loose agreements on hopeful generalities and abhorrence of problems elsewhere, like Myanmar. The G7 is doing what its founders wanted to avoid: institutionalizing itself in ministerial committees and pronouncing on other peoples’ problems rather than knuckling down in candour to confront our own. Once, the annual G7 was the planet’s biggest political draw. It was first convened in 1975 at Rambouillet and included the leaders of the United States, France, West Germany, Britain, Japan, and Italy. Canada, under Pierre Trudeau and with backing from President Gerald Ford over objections by French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, joined in 1976. The group originally sought to build on an informal forum of finance ministers of the world’s biggest economies set up in 1973 by US Treasury Secretary George Schultz. Mired in their most serious recession since the 1930s, the leaders were grappling with the electoral costs of hard economic choices, and the G7 provided group political cover for unpopular decisions to tighten belts and to resist protectionism.

As summits went from being only “economic” to also being geopolitical, the G7 had big moments. There were game-changing confrontations, notably between Brian Mulroney and Margaret Thatcher over her support for South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Europeans pressed Ronald Reagan to come off his hard line on the Cold War. He did, the Cold War ended, and to suit more optimistic times, Russia joined what became a G8.

Anti-terrorism and anti-proliferation moved to the top of the political agenda. After 9/11, the meetings recommitted to a common front against jihadism, searingly underlined when the 2005 Gleneagles Summit was interrupted by the London Underground bombings by radicalized British men that killed 52. (Will the infamous van murders on Toronto’s Yonge Street on April 23 by a disturbed citizen similarly galvanize G7 members to face up to the homegrown damage wrought by our monetized social networks?)

On its main economic credo, the G7 was unwavering in its internationalist faith in the rules-based system for dispute settlement and in open global markets and economic growth, which indeed brought hundreds of millions out of poverty. But as China, India, and Brazil benefited and rose, they insisted on representation and their say on the rules. Hopes for the more broadly based and representative G20 — championed by Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin — accelerated at the G8’s expense when the financial crisis of 2008–2009 called into question the credibility of Western economic management.

The G20 did help steer the world through the financial crisis. But it failed to find the political will and agility to realize hopes it would enable trade-offs between developed and rising economies across sectors, so as to advance climate change mitigation and concessions on world trade in respective negotiations that were stalled. It didn’t happen: the Paris Accord on climate change did emerge, though without binding national commitments, but the World Trade Organization Doha Round collapsed.

Authoritarian regimes prospered from globalization with top-down economic command and controls. In the G20, they opposed discussion of human rights, inclusiveness, refugees, and, God knows, democracy. So did Russia, kicked out of the G7 over the annexation of Crimea in 2014, now embarked on a Putinesque fantasy adventure into a mythic Russian past of authoritarian glory.

In trying to regain its credibility, the G7 comes across as defensive. Individual leaders are buffeted at home by political crosswinds from divided electorates. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may soon be forced from office. It’s unclear who will represent Italy. Britain’s Theresa May is on the ropes over Brexit, and Germany’s Angela Merkel is a reduced political force. France’s Emmanuel Macron has the most international wind in his sails, but has to confront union rebellion at home.

When Pierre Trudeau hosted Canada’s first G7 Summit at Montebello in 1981, he wanted a North–South theme (Margaret Thatcher sneered, “Oh, come on, Pierre”). The crowd of foreign journalists thirsted instead for the colour story on how just-elected conservative Reagan would get along with social-democratic European partners. Trudeau did emerge as something of a global champion of developing countries. Reagan charmed everybody and went back to Washington evidently unchanged by anything he’d heard.

Justin Trudeau will be both skilled and lucky if his turn, again in an ex-French seigniorial locale, comes off as well. Reaching a meaningful accord with climate skeptic and economic nationalist Donald Trump is going to be a stretch. On the other hand, with President Macron in Washington, President Trump seemed flexible on Iran and on trade. If the Trump who comes to Charlevoix is that guy, there’s some hope for conciliation. However, international media are lusting for the “Great Disrupter show” knowing that Trump has systematically disdained the norms of international co-operation that the G7 defends. Still, G7 leaders have tried to keep their own relationships with the US president as constructive as possible.

All share one point of agreement: relief that someone else is in the chair. They’ll give Trudeau a break. No one expects him alone to browbeat Trump into submission on issues like trade, climate, and migration. Widening income disparities? No way Trump’s team would agree to that preoccupation even being on the agenda. Trump’s holdout and isolation will make an agreed communique of any substantive significance hard to produce.

If Canada pushes hard, it could blow up. Trump could walk out. Or not show up. However, if Canada goes instead just for a bland chair’s statement, in order to keep him in, it will show the G7 has no added value left. Exhortations to cut back on plastics, save the oceans, and empower women and girls won’t save its global brand for decisive relevance on G7 issues right now if they defer to Donald Trump’s fixations. Hopefully, someone at this meeting — Macron, Merkel — will step up and remind partners that the global economic recession that was the group’s founding raison d’être has now been succeeded by a global democratic recession, whose reversal should be a challenge these democracies welcome. If they can’t because the biggest member is practising a divisive and unhealthy populist nationalism, the G7 will go the way of Enron and Nortel, and other once-great but mismanaged ventures that sleepwalked into obscurity.

If Trump remains a malign unilateralist presence, to save the G7, Justin Trudeau may have to recognize openly that the world’s major industrialized democracies reject Donald Trump’s harmful view of international co-operation, and his manhandling of basic, inclusive tenets of democracy. A chairman’s closing statement that says “most of us here” continue to place our belief systems in international rules-based co-operation, fact-based and transparent decision-making, and inclusivity may be the G7’s first such acknowledged internal separation. But it may be its survival moment, a stand on values that looks forward confidently to future, better, more harmonious times. “Let’s see what happens.”

Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the UK, and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley. [email protected]

This article was first published by Policy Magazine on 18 May 2018.

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