Gone were the incendiary tweets, the disdainful looks, the fits of pique.
Donald Trump did not storm out of the Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France. He did not lash out at other G7 leaders or insult the group’s host, as he did last year at the Canadian G7. His tweets were blandly polite. He looked bored; at one point killing time by responding to a provocative tweet from Ezra Levant of Canada’s Rebel Media, of all people. He managed to smile now and again and tweet about “great” meetings.
But Mr. Trump’s relatively civil behaviour did not mean he has become a sudden fan of the G7 or that he found common ground with the leaders of France, Germany, Britain, Italy, Japan and Canada. He was as isolated as ever on front-burner issues such as Iran, the environment and tariffs; he didn’t, for instance, show up at the joint session on climate and biodiversity. He just hid his emotions well. Under the Trump administration, the G7 is still very much the G6 plus One.
The G6 leaders were studies in poise, too. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s infamous eye roll, normally deployed in reaction to Trumpian statements she finds ridiculous or deplorable, was, sadly, absent. G7 host Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, wanted no fireworks after the blow-ups at the last two G7 fiascos – France marked Mr. Trump’s third appearance at the global talking shop.
Mr. Macron didn’t want to rouse anyone’s temper, though he tried at one point, perhaps out of sheer devilry. The moment came on Sunday, when he invited the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, to Biarritz, the posh seaside resort town on the Atlantic that played host to the G7. The visit failed to trigger an outburst from Mr. Trump, just stony silence. A year ago, such a reaction would have been unimaginable.
If the goal of the G7 was to get Mr. Trump onside on the big issues that confront and confound some of the world’s biggest economies, and the planet in general, it came up well short. At best, there was meagre progress on some fronts, such as highlighting the horrific fires in the Amazon and putting pressure on Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro to snuff them out (in fact, Mr. Bolsonaro announced while the G7 was under way that he would turn his soldiers into firefighters). There was no real buy-in from Mr. Trump on the Amazon even though the G7 broadly agreed to offer Brazil some “technical and financial help” to fight the fires and is writing a cheque for some US$20-million to back the effort. Canada is sending water bombers. His aides dismissed environmental protection and African development as “niche issues.”
On the big, indeed crucial, economic issue at the G7 – the tariff war – there was essentially zero progress. Most of the G7 leaders, notably newbie British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, expressed disapproval of Mr. Trump’s lavish use of tariffs to launch a trade war with China, one that could spill into Europe and damage export-driven economies such as Germany and Italy. At first, Mr. Trump appeared conciliatory, appearing to admit that he was having second thoughts on the trade war. The White House fixed that in a hurry. Mr. Trump, a spokesperson said, “regrets not raising the tariffs higher” (later, on the margins of the G7 on Monday, Mr. Trump said China is seeking new talks to try to end the trade war).
Mr. Trump was isolated on virtually every other issue, too. Mr. Trump is the host of the next G7 (probably at his Doral golf resort in Miami) and wants to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the event, restoring the G8 – Russia was expelled in 2014, after it seized Crimea. But Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders made it clear that Russia’s unconditional readmission was a non-starter (Mr. Putin has not formally asked to rejoin the group, at least not publicly).
Iran and North Korea were two other consensus busts. The United States abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and Mr. Macron has endeavoured to resolve the dispute. He reportedly thought he had the outline of an agreement with all G7 countries to defuse the Iranian situation somewhat. If so, it was news to Mr. Trump, who drew a blank face when he was asked on Sunday about progress on the Iranian front.
On Monday, as the G7 drew to a close, Mr. Macron said he hoped that Mr. Trump and his Iranian counterpart would meet soon to try to redraft the nuclear deal, though he stressed that “nothing is certain.” But Mr. Trump was non-committal, saying only that he was open to a meeting if the circumstances are right. “I think we’re going to do something. It may not be immediately,” he said.
Mr. Trump said he was not particularly bothered by North Korea’s short-range missile tests, saying that Kim Jong-un was “not in violation of an agreement.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a different view, noting that North Korea’s short-range missiles can reach Japan and that the round of missile tests “clearly violates the relevant UN Security Council resolutions.”
To be fair to Mr. Trump, he wanted more sessions on the global economy and trade, where he could boast about America’s economic success and defend his tariff war with China. Indeed, with hints of recession in the rich economies popping up everywhere – Germany is flirting with recession and Britain, after Brexit, could plunge into one – the G7 should have focused more on the economy. There was a session on economic matters, but it got lost in the clutter of meetings and news conferences.
The G7 is losing its relevancy, in good part because the G6 members are not powerful enough, collectively, to bring the Americans into their tent. Mr. Trump’s rejection of multilateralism has done no favours to the G7 or any other multilateral institution, such as the World Trade Organization. As if to prove the point that the White House is willingly losing its international punch, the Chinese foreign minister a few days ago invited the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea to a summit in Beijing to talk about the North Korean missile threat and other matters. South Korea and Japan are key American allies, the latter being a G7 member. Why weren’t they invited to Washington?
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