Wesley Wark is director of the Security and Policy Institute at the University of Ottawa.
He came, he saw, he left, he insulted. That sums up the brief appearance of U.S. President Donald Trump at the G7 summit, hosted by Canada this year in the picturesque Charlevoix region north of Quebec city. That Mr. Trump came at all was something of a surprise. He is reported to have viewed the Canadian meeting as a giant distraction from his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to discuss denuclearization. The real shock of the summit was Mr. Trump’s inability to pocket his anger and disdain for some of his country’s closest allies on the planet.
The U.S. President is not a multilateralist. He is at odds with all the major G7 countries on trade, tariffs, climate change, the Iran deal, Israel-Palestine – the list is long. In international relations Mr. Trump is not just an America-firster – he is a wrecking ball, a dynamic made clear prior to the summit by his impromptu remarks about readmitting Russia to the G7. For those with the same short attention span as Mr. Trump, Russia was kicked out of the group because of its aggression against Crimea and the Ukraine. The idea of a reinstatement of Russia was roundly rejected by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
Mr. Trump turned the 44th G7 summit into an angry and disputatious G6-plus-one summit . Elements of Prime Minister Trudeau’s progressive agenda got some air time with the other G6 leaders, which include Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy (plus the EU), and something might come of the discussions on advancing clean oceans policy, cybersecurity and gender equality. But Mr. Trump ultimately changed his mind and refused to sign the summit communiqué. After departing, while flying on Air Force One and surrounded by his coterie, he also aimed an extraordinary insult at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “weak and dishonest.” He appears to believe that Mr. Trudeau is the biggest robber of what he referred to at a rambling G7 news conference as America’s “piggy bank.” Mr. Trudeau, to give him credit, refused to be provoked.
You have to feel for Mr. Trudeau as G7 chair. He has no choice but to search for a new way to seek dialogue with the ever-more irascible Mr. Trump and his minions. The Canadian government clearly has a diminishing cast of friends at the White House. John Bolton, the new national security adviser and Larry Kudlow, the trade guru, are not among them. There must have been lots of truth in Mr. Trump’s quip at the summit that Mr. Trudeau was happy to see him leave early.
Commiseration is also due to all the Canadian officials who put so much effort into trying to make the G7 summit a success, including the Canadian G7 veteran diplomat Peter Boehm and a large team of officials from Global Affairs Canada. They are the unsung heroes of Canada’s multilateralist summit effort. Many of them have day jobs working the Canada-U.S. file.
As Mr. Trump heads into the wild blue yonder for his meeting with the North Korean leader in Singapore on June 12, we are left with three disturbing inklings for the future - and a hefty price tag for a failed summit.
First, Ottawa’s reasoned appeal for solidarity with the Trump administration on the basis of shared bonds of history and martial sacrifice will clearly not resonate with the Trump administration, and will not advance our interests. A grittier, more confrontational new ground will have to be found. Prime Minister Trudeau based his initial response to the imposition of U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum exports from Canada on just such an appeal. Mr. Trump shot back with a dumb remark about Canadians burning down the White House in the war of 1812 (actually it was the British). The G7 summit happened to commence a day after the anniversary of one of the greatest, multilateral military campaigns in history, the D-Day landings in 1944, in which U.S., British, and Canadian troops fought and died together. It was not mentioned. Why bother?
Secondly, while the G7 was turning into the G6, another multilateral gathering was about to commence on the other side of the world. China is hosting a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperative Council, that features China , Russia and Central Asian states, and was put together as a deliberate response and Chinese alternative to Western summits such as the G7. In the absence of an effective G7 organization and others like it to advance the collective interests of Western-oriented polities and economies, the Chinese will march ahead into leadership of the global system.
Finally Mr. Trump’s bulldozing approach to the summit has implications for the future resolution of tensions on the Korean peninsula and the North Korean possession of nuclear weapons systems. Mr. Trump may think he can barge through the G7, elbows out, and play instead the great game of bilateralism with North Korean dictator King Jong-un. But any solution to the denuclearization issue will not be made by the United States alone, and will certainly not be enforced by the United States alone. ‘America first’ may work at home for the President; it does not offer a recipe for success in international relations.
If there was a delegate’s swag bag presented to the U.S. President as he made his quick exit from Charlevoix, it might have contained a modest-sized reproduction of “Winter, Charlevoix county,” the great A.Y. Jackson painting from the region. The impressionist work of the Quebec landscape features a deserted and winding winter road, bracketed by a distorted line of telephone poles, and disappearing into a distant vista of layered and rocky hills. There is probably no better metaphor for where the United States is headed in denuclearization talks with North Korea, where it marches in dealing with allies, and where, alas, Canada-U.S. relations are also headed.