President Trump vs. the West: Iconic picture out of the G7 summit, Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, June 8-9, 2018.
The US President Donald Trump will be completing his first term with foreign-policy legacies, which, even detractors must grudgingly admit, are game-changing for world politics. Debris of monumental proportions surrounds him — Paris Accord on climate change, Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, JCPOA, World Health Organisation and so on.
But Trump’s demolition of the transatlantic alliance system will stand out as his most defining legacy in current history. The G7 has been in his crosshairs since the summit meeting of the grouping at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, Canada (June 8-9, 2018), where he stormed out even before the event’s ceremonial closing, rejecting its communique and publicly insulting its host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “very dishonest and weak.”
The squabble was over the steel and aluminium tariffs on every other G7 member that Trump had imposed. (“We’re like the piggy bank that everybody’s robbing — and that ends.”) Trudeau calmly held his ground: “As Canadians, we are polite, we’re reasonable, but also we will not be pushed around.” The drama was hard to miss and it was all too obvious that the bell had begun to toll for G7.
Trump’s grouse that G7 did not serve US interests deepened recently when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stepped up his stigmatisation of China in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic at a G7 foreign ministers’ meeting on March 25, calling on member states to refer to the virus as “Wuhan virus.” The foreign ministers balked and the meeting failed to issue a joint statement.
Trump, therefore, forced the issue with his suggestion to host the annual G7 summit in late June in person rather than by videoconference. Trump tweeted, “Now that our Country is ‘Transitioning back to Greatness,’ I am considering rescheduling the G-7, on the same or similar date, in Washington, D.C., at the legendary Camp David. The other members are also beginning their COMEBACK. It would be a great sign to all – normalization!”
Trump’s spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that a face-to-face summit would be a “show of strength and optimism” where leaders would “pursue business as usual as we move forward through this pandemic.”
But other G7 leaders didn’t quite see things that way. Trudeau, who hosted the 2018 summit, reacted saying any in-person gathering would have to prioritise safety — “We’ll certainly take a look at what the US is proposing as host of the G7 to see what kind of measures will be in place to keep people safe, what kind of recommendations the experts are giving in terms of how that might function.”
A relatively positive response came from Paris, with an Elysee official saying President Macron was “willing to go to Camp David if the health conditions allow.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel was categorical: “Whatever form the G7 meeting takes, a video conference or whatever, I will certainly fight for multilateralism.”
A day later, Merkel rebuffed Trump’s invitation. “The federal chancellor thanks President Trump for his invitation to the G7 summit at the end of June in Washington. As of today, considering the overall pandemic situation, she cannot agree to her personal participation, to a journey to Washington,” German government spokesman stated.
Merkel’s refusal to accept Trump’s invitation reflects the difficult relationship between the two leaders. Trump has been caustic about Germany, and Merkel specifically, over issues ranging from Berlin’s trade surplus to its defense spending. Merkel also has taken issue with the Trump administration’s unilateral approach to a range of foreign policy issues, from climate change to the Iran nuclear deal.
In a phone call between Trump and Merkel earlier in the week, the two leaders reportedly had “heated disagreements” on topics including NATO, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, and relations with China.
Trump is not someone to take a slight lightly. He has since come up with a proposal to reschedule the G7 summit for September — but with the caveat that it could be in an expanded format that includes Russia. Trump insisted that it is “common sense” to invite Russia back into the G7, as it would make solving various issues much easier if Russian President Vladimir Putin were to rejoin the group.
Canada, UK and the European Union have since vehemently objected to Russia’s return to the G7 group; Japan, France and Italy are yet to weigh in; Germany has dug in maintaining that the current global climate is just not the right time to change the G7’s format. Nonetheless, Trump went ahead to phone Putin and extend the invitation personally.
Notionally, Trump could “tweak” his invite to Putin to join the G7 summit as an “observer” (along with Australia, Israel and India.) Indeed, there is a “G7-plus” mechanism and the host country is free to issue invitations.
But it will be a bitter pill to swallow for Russia that after having been one kicked out while a full member, it is invited back as “observer”. Yet, Putin is also eager to meet Trump. There are pressing issues where progress is possible only with Trump’s intervention — such as arms control. New START is coming up for renewal on 5th February 2021.
Russian pundits estimate that Trump is sure to get re-elected and a historic opportunity could be at hand to mend Russian-American relations. This is precisely what the other G7 leaders fear — that at G7 summit in September, they may end up as mute witnesses to a renaissance of US-Russia elations, which can of course happen only at their own cost.
Trump has already put Germany on notice by approving a plan to withdraw 9,500 American troops from bases in Germany by September. This is almost a third of the country’s troops currently based in Germany. (Germany currently hosts by far the largest number of US forces in Europe.)
Trump’s decision deals a blow to solidarity within NATO. He is retaliating against the EU and NATO’s refusal to follow US’ footfalls on China.
To be sure, Beijing is taking note. On successive days this week, President Xi Jinping telephoned Merkel and Macron.
Trump’s invitation to Putin has caught Beijing by surprise. Beijing didn’t expect an easing of US-Russia tensions anytime soon. Moscow moved swiftly to assuage the angst in the Chinese mind with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova commenting last Tuesday that Trump’s proposal to expand the G7 summit is “a step in the right direction,” but it will fail to “provide a truly universal representation.”
Zakharova said, “It is hardly possible to implement serious undertakings of global significance without China’s participation.”
Russia sees no glamour in rejoining the G7 and probably has no illusions that an equal relationship with Washington is not to be expected now or ever — which makes Trump’s invitation more a tactical ploy to isolate China than a coherent strategy to reset relations with Moscow from a long-term perspective.
Curiously, the day after Trump invited Putin to G7, the latter signed a decree on its upgraded nuclear doctrine which conceptualises the use of atomic weapons in response to a conventional strike by the US. Having said that, the unraveling of the western alliance system as such has been a dream project for Moscow and the door now opens for a new pattern of relations with European countries at the bilateral level
However, Moscow has also been reminded last week that continued US interference in its ties with Europe remains a fact of life. A proposed new US legislation aims to expand sanctions on the mega Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline under construction from Russia to Germany — and that too, just as the Russian pipe-laying vessel Academic Cherskiy moored near the German logistics hub in Mukran to finish the project.
Equally, it seems highly improbable that Moscow will put at risk its deepening entente with China. In the final analysis, both Russia and China stand to gain as G7 walks into the sunset and the concept of the “West” itself disappears in the contemporary world order.
Suffice to say, the sun is setting on G7. But this will also be a long sunset. Significant decisions at the grouping’s summits used to set the compass for other international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, International Energy Agency and of course the NATO.
The G7 summits provided the business forum with power brokers from the most influential nations and financial institutions in the world all in one place, which could lead to real breakthroughs in a relatively short period of time.
When the member countries go their own ways, these organisations become rudderless, cut adrift. Bluster aside, Trump too won’t want the G7 sunset to cast shadows on the status of the US dollar as the world currency.