Donald Trump, feeling short of allies among his country’s closest friends, called for Vladimir Putin to be let back into the G7 club. That set the tone.
The Russian gambit was the kind of pure disruptive genius that makes observers wonder if Mr. Trump is reckless or tactical. But it must be both. It spun a disorienting smoke bomb into a G7 summit that was turning into a gang-up on the U.S. President over steel tariffs.
This had been building to a G6-plus-one summit, with Mr. Trump facing concerted opposition on his administration’s recent tariffs. France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, had tweeted a blunt warning that “the American President may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be.” The Europeans in the group – France, Germany, Britain and Italy – had been proud of their united front.
Then came Mr. Trump’s Putin ploy. G7 officials had planned for their leaders to discuss ways to counter Russia’s interference in their democracies. Suddenly, the U.S. President was spit-balling about a diametrically opposed idea – readmitting Mr. Putin, booted from the group four years ago after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Soon, Italy’s new Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, was tweeting his support for bringing Russia back into the G7. Mr. Conte leads a peculiarly pro-Russia coalition of the populist Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega, whose leader Matteo Salvini signed a co-operation agreement last year with Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party.
Instead of a G6-plus-one summit, it was now a G5-plus-one-plus-one meeting. Maybe with Mr. Putin, they could form a G5 plus three. European unity was split. If the idea was to sow confusion and pull at the threads that knit together this group of leading industrialized democracies, it worked. Well-played, Mr. Trump. Or Mr. Putin. Or whomever.
The Russian fog was a bit of cover for the President as he flew into the summit after 12 hours of firing Twitter missives at the other G7 leaders. “Looking forward to straightening out unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries. It it doesn’t happen, we come out even better,” he tweeted on Friday morning.
He especially chided Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s high tariffs on dairy products. And while that’s a fair target for any free trader, it missed the point that neither Mr. Trump nor the United States is a free-trader on dairy products or agriculture. Ottawa argues the Americans’ heavy dairy subsidies are the equivalent of a 354-per-cent tariff. The United States sells more dairy products to Canada than it buys in return.
It was all fog. Mr. Trump wants tariffs. He wants to put up barriers to imported steel and take credit for any job created at U.S. mills. He wants Wisconsin farmers to see him complaining about Canada. He wants to browbeat other countries for concessions, although he often fails to articulate which concessions he wants.
The body language as Mr. Trump first met the other leaders looked a little strained, but there were still smiles. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland insisted that the first working meeting of the leaders was “cordial” and “productive,” although she was talking about a session that dealt with each country’s own domestic policies, not contentious international issues.
At a photo op at the start of a head-to-head meeting with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Trump joked that “Justin” had agreed to drop all trade tariffs, then insisted the two countries are making progress on North American free-trade agreement trade talks. Then he threw in another smoke bomb, suggesting he might split NAFTA up into separate deals with Canada and Mexico.
Mr. Trump has become the President who disrupts his allies more than his adversaries. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, remarked that nothing Mr. Trump does can surprise any more, but it’s not quite true. Mr. Trump is a constant surprise.
Mr. Tusk’s own comments about the steel tariffs made it clear that he can’t quite believe the United States is undermining the trade system it designed. “The rules-based international order is being challenged,” Mr. Tusk said. “Quite surprisingly, it’s not by the usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor.”
You can bet Mr. Tusk’s list of the usual suspects out to disrupt the world order includes Russia’s Mr. Putin.
So take a moment to admire Mr. Trump’s instinctive pot-stirring genius, and then consider what it tells us. This U.S. President doesn’t count old U.S. friends as allies. Mr. Putin might be in his club as much as British Prime Minister Theresa May or Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Trump’s United States doesn’t worry about allies.