If U.S. President Donald Trump’s objective is to make himself the center of attention at every international event, he is succeeding. If he aims to undermine the legitimacy of international institutions, he is making progress. If, however, he seeks to make America great again, his actions are working at cross purposes to his goal. Those are the inescapable conclusions to be drawn from last weekend’s Group of Seven leaders summit.
The run-up to the conclave established that the leaders summit would be difficult. At the finance representatives meeting held earlier in the week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was isolated, as the six other countries issued a statement calling on Mnuchin to convey to Trump their “unanimous concern and disappointment” over the U.S. decision to unilaterally impose tariffs on its chief trade partners. Bill Morneau, Canada’s finance minister and host of the meeting, called Washington’s decision “destructive.” That historic split prompted references to the “G6 plus 1,” and sparked concern over the heads of state meeting that was to be held days later.
Trump did not disappoint. He doubled down on his trade policy, insisting that the United States was being treated unfairly by trade partners and demanding they eliminate their trade surpluses with his country. As he departed for Canada, he suggested that Russia be readmitted to the group, disregarding Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of rebellion in Ukraine that prompted its expulsion in 2014. He arrived late and left early, with multiple media reports revealing that Trump considered skipping the conclave altogether. During the meeting, he reportedly offered to eliminate all U.S. tariffs if other countries would do the same, and threatened a trade war if they did not. Trump showed up late for sessions, and held a solo news conference when he departed at which he charged that his country was “the piggy bank that everyone was robbing. And that ends.”
As he flew to Singapore, Trump withdrew support for the joint statement that he had backed — and was carefully crafted by all G7 representatives to accommodate his views — blaming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for criticizing U.S. trade policy. The spectacle was complete when Trudeau was reduced to saying that “Canadians won’t be pushed around.”
Global leadership demands more than action and reaction, punches and retaliation. Even if the G7 has been reduced in influence — the G20 is a more credible mechanism for economic management — the group can articulate the values and principles that should guide the international order. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has played a central role in developing and supporting both principles and the institutions. Under Trump, that role can no longer be assumed. European Council President Donald Task spoke for many when he said that “the rules-based international order is being challenged,” not by the “usual suspects, but by its main architect and guarantor, the U.S.”
To their credit, other G7 leaders are trying to step up and fill the vacuum created by the U.S. retreat. French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken forcefully against the use of raw power — “hegemony” in his words — to arbitrate international disputes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done his part by pursuing the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership despite U.S. withdrawal and objections. In bilateral meetings before the G7 summit, he and Trudeau reaffirmed their commitment to working through the World Trade Organization to sustain the global trade order, while Abe and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to work toward the early signing and entry into force of a free trade agreement between Japan and the European Union, a deal that was finalized last year and is another vote in favor of an institutionalized trade system. Japan is right to demand adherence to global rules and Abe is to be applauded for his determination to strengthen them.
Trump’s determination to go his own way against mounting opposition is taking a toll. Opinion polls show that U.S standing in the world is deteriorating. Even before Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, moved the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and threatened trade wars, a Gallup survey showed median approval of U.S. leadership dropped 18 points in Trump’s first year, to a record low of just 30 percent. A Pew Research Center survey last year revealed that global public assessment of Trump was below that of President Barack Obama in all but two countries: Russia and Israel.
Picking fights with friends is not making America great again. Rather, it is weakening the foundation of American power, a development that none of its allies and partners wish to see. It is also helping governments that prefer a world that is ruled by raw power and indifference to the aspirations to democracy and the dignity of its inhabitants. It is a world in which we are all diminished.