No summit in the past half century can have gone as spectacularly awry as this year’s G7 gathering in Canada. Canada, of all places – a country that prides itself on its general niceness – found itself presiding over a train-wreck. The final indignity came when the US President, Donald Trump, took umbrage at remarks made by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and sent word that he was retracting his approval of the final declaration.
For all the efforts made by so-called “sherpas”, summit meetings can, and do, go wrong. In 1986, the Reykjavik meeting between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev ended late, and without agreement. In 1989, the Malta summit – Gorbachev again and George Bush senior - was nearly sunk by stormy seas. The agendas for G7 and G8 summits have also been de-railed by totally unforeseen events, such as the Indian and Pakistan nuclear tests (1998) and terrorist attacks in Britain (2005 and 2017).
But no summit in the past half century can have gone as spectacularly awry as this year’s G7 gathering in Canada. Canada, of all places – a country that prides itself on its general niceness – found itself presiding over a train-wreck. The final indignity came when the US President, Donald Trump, took umbrage at remarks made by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, and sent word that he was retracting his approval of the final declaration.
Not that this summit had been expected to run smoothly. Even as the seven leaders assembled in La Malbaie, it was forecast to be more like G6 plus 1. This was because it was taking place in the midst of a dispute about US tariffs on steel and aluminium. Canada and the Europeans had hoped that, in presenting a united front at the G7, they would persuade Trump to change his mind. That was a misjudgement of the first order. Trump does change his mind on occasion - but not because others want him to.
Trump also upset many of the others, by very publicly regretting Russia’s absence and calling for it to be readmitted. This particularly annoyed the UK, whose prime minister, Theresa May, had arrived with a proposal that amounted to the very opposite. With no change on either Crimea or the Minsk agreement on Ukraine, it maintained, there could be no question of softening sanctions or making the G7 once again the G8.
The agenda probably did little to lighten Donald Trump’s mood either. While it looked uncontentious to Canadians and Europeans – climate change, gender equality, jobs for the future - it was always likely to irritate the US President and his particular domestic constituency. Not one to conceal his feelings, Trump flouted the dress code for dinner, turned up late for the gender-equality breakfast, then left early- as arranged – for his historic date with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Cue barbed comments to the effect that he was rejecting his friends and courting his enemies instead.
Kim-Trump Summit: Will David Defeat Goliath?
Apocalyptic anxiety about inevitable war on the Korean peninsula late last year is now about to give way to elation and waiting for a positive shift in the Korean peaceful settlement. The temptation is great, but for me, the exaggerated optimism characterizing the disputes of the Korean issue, is actually a point of concern.
The disarray at and after the Canada G7 was particularly conspicuous in part because the summit had coincided – by accident or design – with the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in China. And at the SCO summit venue in Qingdao, no such tensions were in evidence. Thus, on one side of the world you could see – if you so chose – a self-appointed global elite starting to fall apart, while on the other there were China, India, Russia and a slew of Central Asian states pledging to become a more dynamic and influential grouping.
In fact, such a contrast is too simplistic. For the G7 of 2018 was less disintegrating than splitting into Six plus One, with the United States the odd one out. And this poses a question that is not about a group of old rich countries (the G7) starting to fail, while a newer group (the SCO) unites to increase its global clout. The more pressing question is about the G7 and how far the transatlantic – and to a lesser extent, the trans-Pacific alliance - can hold.
And the nub of this question is whether Donald Trump represents the US future or its past. Is he an aberration – the last gasp of an angry and declining demographic - or does his nationalism and dislike of multilateralism point the way that the United States is headed?
If the former, then the Europeans can probably just about afford to wait. The US will return to its familiar, supportive, self - if not in two, then in six, years – and Europe can postpone any major reorientation. In the last tariff spat, over steel in 2003, the EU appealed to the WTO and won. If trade fairness is what the latest G7 split is really about, then the storm could blow over as quickly as it rose.
G7 Summit: Six against One
The G7 summit, scheduled for June 8-9 in La Malbaie, Canada, is going to be held on a six-vs-one basis, with everyone double charging the US because of its trade tariffs. Tensions between the G7 states, the summit’s agenda and the possible split of the Western alliance – these are the topics addressed by Valdai Club experts Radhika Desai and William Wohlforth in an interview with valdaiclub.com.
There would still be a style issue. Donald Trump defies all known norms of diplomacy. But while he can be incredibly rude to other leaders, he also appears to tolerate a degree of rudeness back. As France’s Emmanuel Macron seems to understand, with Trump, straight-talking seems to generates respect.
If what has happened at the G7 is not a temporary spat about trade, however, and not about style over substance, then the rift with the US becomes serious. What we have before us then is evidence that the US and the Europeans (plus Canada and Japan) increasingly see the world in different ways and subscribe to different values. What could then be in prospect is nothing less than the end of the post-1945 world order, with the US disengaging from Europe economically and politically, if not quite yet in terms of security and defence.
Such an end has long been foretold. There was apprehension among some that President Barack Obama – because of his relative youth and his non-European background - would take less interest in, and offer less support to, the European allies. And the slow evolution of an EU defence and security policy reflects an awareness that the US support may be less reliable in future.
There is a less dramatic interpretation. Perhaps, rather than demonstrating the caprice of Donald Trump or foreshadowing an inevitable split between the US and Europe, the disarray in Canada this year showed only that the G7, as a group, has outlived its usefulness. Perhaps all it showed was that no group that excludes China and India and Russia – to name but three – makes sense any longer, and that the G20, or something else, should take its place. Yet it would surely be folly to rule out a longer view. In hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, Europe needs to gird itself for a future in which it, and the US, might well go separate ways. For the EU, that could be a galvanising prospect; for the UK, contemplating Brexit, it demands an unenviable choice.