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At any other time, with any other president, there couldn’t be a summit like this. The President of the United States is coming to a G7 Summit to talk about his effort at a historic rapprochement with North Korea’s strongman. And most of his allies are consumed with trade, and pledging to stand up to Donald Trump.

Typically, a major presidential initiative on one of the intractable security conundrums of modern times would have the leaders of other G7 countries searching for cues to follow the so-called leader of the free world. On Thursday, one day before the summit, Mr. Trump and other leaders of major industrial democracies were on different wavelengths.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and French President Emmanuel Macron preceded the summit with a news conference where they promised to stand up to Mr. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum, and warned him that a trade war will hurt everyone.

Mr. Trump didn’t even talk about that. At his afternoon news conference, he didn’t mention the G7 or tariffs. He doesn’t even want to go to the G7, according to one report, which casts him as grumpy at the prospect of spending two days in Canada when he’s more concerned about meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next week. He’s said to be put off by the prospect of being lectured about tariffs by the other six, and complaining privately about Mr. Trudeau’s opposition to the tariffs.

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Mr. Trump did get personal in an evening tweet, complaining that Mr. Trudeau acted “indignant” about steel tariffs but that the Prime Minister didn’t mention Canada’s 300-per-cent tariffs on dairy products (foreign cheese entering Canada faces duties of 226.5 per cent). However, the President didn’t mention that the United States subsidizes its agriculture to the tune of $20-billion a year.

It should give the world pause. These are two big issues, a possible global trade war on the one hand and the first contact with a nuclear-armed rogue state on the other. And the leaders of the seven major industrialized nations are talking past each other.

The obvious exception was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the leader standing beside Mr. Trump at a White House press conference, obsequiously praising the President’s devotion to world peace. But Mr. Abe is different, because his country is a 10-minute missile flight away from Pyongyang. For Japan, understandably, North Korea’s nuclear capacity outranks steel tariffs. When Mr. Trump is preparing for a summit with high stakes for Japan’s security, Mr. Abe wants to be talking to him, a lot.

The North Korea initiative matters to other G7 leaders, of course. They’ll undoubtedly be listening closely to the U.S. plan, hoping to hear Mr. Trump has one. But going in, the tariffs have forestalled any shared sense of what matters most. If it were just these summits at stake, or their communiqués, that wouldn’t be overly consequential, but it can also blunt the ability of the world’s major industrialized democracies to act in concert.

There have been splits in this club before – with then-president George W. Bush on the Iraq War, for example. Every summit involves bridging differences. But there is now unusual direct conflict over trade. The other six believe Mr. Trump is breaching international trade law – and in Canada’s case, NAFTA – threatening a trade war directly aimed at them.

There were already bound to be other differences in Charlevoix – over the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, notably. Mr. Macron, in Ottawa on Thursday, expressed the view of the others on that: If Mr. Trump doesn’t like the deal Barack Obama signed, so be it, but he shouldn’t try to prevent European countries from sticking with the agreement they signed. That’s a message the others feel a little bullied. The tariffs have added to that.

That’s partly because the non-U.S. G6 members don’t feel Mr. Trump’s trade logic should apply to them; if he wants to impose tariffs against countries that use unfair trade practices, and name China, that’s one thing, but the G7 countries are relatively free traders. It’s also because there are rules and multilateral institutions, notably the World Trade Organization, that are supposed to settle those things.

But there’s a division over whether the rules really apply, or to whom. Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Macron stressed multilateralism and the WTO on Thursday; a day earlier, Mr. Trump’s economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said multilateral institutions such as the WTO won’t determine U.S. national policy.

American presidents have often come to these summits claiming a U.S. exceptionalism that bestows leadership. Now, Mr. Trump is simply declaring the United States an exception. He’s doing his thing, and he’s thinking about a different summit.

  • Protesters march in Quebec City as the G7 Summits gets underway.MARTIN OUELLET-DIOTTE/Getty Images

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