Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
Group of Seven presidents and prime ministers meet this weekend in Biarritz, France, and it may not be just the weather that proves hot. On a range of issues, disagreements between the Western powers and U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to raise the diplomatic temperature.
The context for this weekend’s session is last year’s Canadian summit, which saw an unprecedented failure to agree on an end-of-summit communiqué. And this was given added spice by remarkable undiplomatic language, including Mr. Trump’s characterization of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “so indignant” while the latter called the U.S. President’s trade tariffs “laughable.”
The personal animosity on display between Mr. Trump, who left early to visit North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore, and other leaders provided the atmosphere for wider policy splits. Mr. Trump, for instance, on the first day of the summit called for Russia to be allowed to rejoin the group (as the G8), a call that he renewed on Tuesday.
Yet, other G7 leaders called for a “rapid and unified” response to malign international interference, including by Moscow, such as cyber and chemical weapon attacks including those last year in Salisbury, England. Despite the U.S. President’s desire for warmer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is little sign that Russia will be invited back to the club any time soon.
Yet, amid continuing divisions from trade to climate change, which gave to talk last year of a “G6 plus 1” as a result of the rift with Mr. Trump, there may be cause for upside surprise this year given the changing dynamics of the leadership. For instance, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson joins the meeting for the first time and it is possible he could act as a bridge between Mr. Trump and other G7 leaders.
Leadership transitions are under way not just in Britain, but also the EU and Italy with Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and Giuseppe Conte stepping down. And in the next 12 months, this could potentially also be the case in Canada with an election scheduled this fall, and in Germany with Angela Merkel’s long reign in its twilight.
Looking further out to the second-half of 2020, much may also depend upon whether Mr. Trump is returned to power. While the fissures within the G7 did not begin with his election in 2016, they have been exacerbated by it.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been a series of intra-Western disagreements over issues from the Middle East, including the Iraq War opposed in 2003 by France and Germany; through to the rise of China with some European powers and the United States having disagreements over the best way to engage the rising superpower.
Yet, despite occasional discord, key Western countries generally continued to agree (until the Trump presidency) on a broad range of issues such as international trade; backing for a Middle Eastern peace process between Israel and the Palestinians along Oslo principles; plus strong support for the international rules-based system and the supranational organizations that make this work. But today, more of these key principles are being disrupted if not outright undermined by Mr. Trump’s agenda.
Take the example of international trade that saw Mr. Trump isolated last year after “unanimous concern and disappointment” of Canada, Britain, Japan, France, Germany and Italy. Trade will again be an undercurrent of tension in Biarritz with Washington considering imposing new tariffs on European car imports in November.
To patch over these cracks, it is therefore possible at the meeting that significant emphasis could be put on finding greater G7 consensus on a range of security and geopolitical issues. Potential examples here could include North Korea, plus the continuing clampdown on terrorism.
There is also the possibility of a further G7 statement over its concerns regarding Venezuela. Western leaders remain worried about the destabilizing political effects of that situation for the wider region, including bordering states of Brazil and Colombia.
This would again highlight the group’s often underappreciated importance as an international security linchpin – despite the fact that it was originally conceived in the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies. The 2017 G7 summit, for instance, was dominated by development of a new G7 terrorism action plan.
The G7’s involvement in this multitude of geopolitical dialogues is not without controversy given its original macroeconomic mandate. For instance, China strongly objected to discussion of maritime security in Asia at the 2016 Japan-hosted summit.
It is sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN, or even the Group of 20, to engage in these international security issues, and/or is a historical artifact given the rise of new powers, including China and India. However, it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new. An early example of the essential function the body has played here was in the 1970s and 1980s when it helped co-ordinate Western strategy toward the then-Soviet Union.
Taken over all, Biarritz will see splits again, including on Russia and trade, although Mr. Johnson’s stand toward Mr. Trump may be significantly warmer than other leaders. While some Western fissures predate his presidency, his agenda has expanded these gaps and next year’s U.S. election is by far the most important of the potential G7 leadership transitions in 2019 and 2020.