The Group of Seven, comprised of leading democratic industrial nations, has long looked past its prime. Once accounting for about 70 percent of the global economy, its members now constitute less than 50 percent. It has been eclipsed by the Group of 20 as the top institution for global economic guidance. Still, an intimate gathering of leaders of those countries could be valuable if they forged a common front on issues of concern. Yet even that is proving too big a challenge in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose “America First” agenda and mercurial temperament have proven virtually insurmountable obstacles to joint action.
The Trump factor was evident before this year’s meeting began, when the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, announced that he would issue no joint statement after the summit for the first time in the group’s 44-year history because “it’s pointless.” He knew that Trump would not agree on the issues that it would address, such as fighting global warming and protectionism. Macron was also recalling the dispute that followed last year’s meeting in Canada, when Trump took offense at comments by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said he would withdraw his signature from the joint statement and then verbally attacked Trudeau.
The intimacy of the G7 is also a problem. If discussions among heads of state are to be meaningful and productive then participants must be able to trust each other. There are no position papers or documents that provide a baseline for analysis and consensus. Trump’s fabrications, exaggerations and meanders undermine the value of those conversations by depriving them of a factual basis. It’s impossible to develop a foundation for meaningful action if participants’ statements aren’t credible.
Fortunately, the G7 offers opportunities for bilateral conversations that can be meaningful. At Biarritz, the sit-down between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump was one such get-together. At it, the two men announced that they had reached “in principle” an agreement on bilateral trade. If correct, that would be an important accomplishment for the two countries. Doubts remain, however. Trump said “we’ve agreed in principle … billions and billions of dollars. … We’ve agreed to every point, and now we’re papering it.” He expects the pact to be signed in September when the two men meet at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
When offered a chance to comment, Abe was more tentative. The prime minister noted that negotiators “successfully reached consensus with regard to the core elements of both the agricultural and industrial products” and agreed that the goal was to sign the final pact at the U.N. in September. But, he cautioned, “remaining work … has to be done at the working level, namely finalizing the wording of the trade agreement and also finalizing the content of the agreement itself.”
Abe was also reserved when prodded by Trump to announce that Japan would be purchasing “hundreds of millions of dollars” of corn from the United States. The trade war with China has left U.S. farmers with large unsold stocks of crops and Trump very much wants to find a purchaser to shore up his support among a critical part of his base. Abe was again tentative, saying those purchases would be “by the Japanese private sector” and concluded by saying that he looked forward to future discussions with the president on the topic. Abe also challenged Trump’s readiness to dismiss North Korea’s recent missile launches, saying that “the launch of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea clearly violates the relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Abe was not the only leader to push back against Trump at the meeting. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wants a trade deal with the U.S. to offset pain that is expected to follow his country’s exit from the European Union, noted that any such agreement would have to include compromises by the U.S. Johnson also questioned Trump’s readiness to wage trade wars, said that he favored “trade peace on the whole” and added “the U.K. has profited massively in the last 200 years from free trade.” It was “sheeplike” resistance, in Johnson’s memorable phrasing, but it was a challenge, nonetheless.
Macron also courted the ire of the White House, if not Trump himself, with the surprise invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to the meeting. Macron, along with other European leaders, has been trying to save the 2015 multilateral agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, from which Trump withdrew the U.S. last year. Zarif did not meet with Trump, but he did talk to other European leaders.
Last year’s post-summit fracas is a reminder that little things can set Trump off and declaring the meeting “a success” — no matter how low the bar — is still premature. Issues that dominated the discussion, the need to shore up the global economy as headwinds mount in particular, remain daunting. The contributions that the G7 can make to that end appear to be shrinking.