Group of Seven summits have always been an odd way to foster solidarity and co-operation among democratic countries with open economies – that is, by holding an elite, closed-door, harshly policed meeting of their elected leaders at great public expense. Yet they have, until this year, basically done the job.
Created as one of the friendlier manifestations of Cold War economic anxiety, the annual G7 summits today have one significant merit – they force those elected governments to turn their private feelings about one another, and about the wider world, into public actions and declarations. They are a window into the functioning of the free world.
What we’re seeing in La Malbaie, Que., this weekend is a free world that is not functioning. It should be; this is actually a great and hopeful moment in Western Europe, in Canada and in Japan, and there’s a lot of co-operation around some of the world’s trickier problems.
But this is all overshadowed by the fact that six of these major countries are struggling to fend off hostile actions by the United States.
President Donald Trump has set the stage for the gathering by imposing harsher trade penalties against his allies in Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union than he has on China (in fact, he has taken time to negotiate the sort of concessions with China’s authoritarian regime, including bailing out the controversial cellphone maker ZTE, that he won’t extend to his democratic allies). He has punished Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on trade, denouncing Tokyo in recent tweets, leaving the basic security interests of allies Japan and South Korea out of his Pyongyang talks, and withdrawing from the trade agreement crucial to Japan’s economy.
The damage extends deeper than trade relations. Mr. Trump is vocally more delighted to be shaking hands with China’s Xi Jinping and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un than he is at dealing with Justin Trudeau or French President Emmanuel Macron. He has far kinder words about frightening strongmen Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines or Viktor Orban of Hungary than he does about fellow members of NATO, NAFTA or the G7. His ambassador to Germany has declared his intention (and gone unpunished for it) to provide backing to illiberal, intolerant parties of the far right in Europe.
It might appear that Mr. Trump is attempting a shrewd divide-and-conquer game, building closer alliances with G7 countries (notably Italy and Britain) that share some of his right-wing nationalist ethos and shunning more liberal voices in the EU and Canada. That would at least make sense, given his transactional, realpolitik view of the world.
But, as the writer Edward Luce noted in the Financial Times this week, he is failing even to do that: “Mr. Trump’s ego wants a mercantilist world. But his id craves revenge… It is hard to do both.”
Mr. Trump has somehow managed to unite Brexit-era Britain, a seemingly natural ally, with France and Germany on key issues. “One would have to go back to the Suez Crisis of 1956 to find a time when the special relationship with Britain was in worse shape,” concludes Thomas Wright, the director of the Washington-based Center on the United States and Europe. The Trump administration has instead insisted on “painful concessions” that would make post-Brexit Britain unable to trade easily with both the EU and the United States. The White House is “treating Britain as an easy mark, not a vital strategic ally.”
Not only that, but Mr. Trump personally dislikes Ms. May. According to presidential advisers interviewed by the Washington Post, Mr. Trump finds the Tory Prime Minister “too politically correct” – possibly because she publicly chided him for having approvingly retweeted a British extremist group linked to the murder of a member of Parliament, and possibly because she is a woman. He is avoiding substantive meetings with her, or with Germany’s Angela Merkel. Even Italy’s anti-EU coalition government appears to need the multilateralism of the G7 and the EU far more than it needs symbolic praise from the White House.
There have been other times when the major democracies have been pitted against the United States – for instance, after 2003, when the Iraq war had even Europe’s conservatives talking about a “multipolar world” and summits were unco-operative.
But never before has the entirety of the liberal-democratic world faced active hostility from Washington. We booted Russia out of what had once been the G8 in 2014, for having abandoned basic democratic values. Extraordinarily, similar language is now being applied to the United States.