The G7 meeting in Biarritz was neither a success nor a failure; not enough happened to qualify it as either. That outcome seems to have been President Macron’s intention. By lowering expectations and not forcing leaders to grapple with controversial issues, Macron avoided what everyone feared – another summit headlined by a bitter divide between the United States and its traditional allies. President Trump hardly backed away from the America First approach to statecraft that has set much of the world on edge. But at least he did not insult his fellow leaders or throw a divisive tantrum.
The summit was not without substance. The G7 nations did pledge substantial resources to help fight fires in the Amazon. Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked up a trade deal after the UK leaves the EU, and Trump and Prime Minister Abe claim to have in sight a trade pact between the United States and Japan. Macron and Trump also seem to have a reached a deal on France’s tax on Big Tech. We will have to wait and see what materializes on all these fronts.
With such unpredictable characters as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump attending, drama within the meeting halls cannot be ruled out. In the event that all passes off quietly and according to plan, it will not only be President Macron who will sigh with relief.
On the intensifying trade war between the United States and China, it was impossible to tell what Trump has in mind. At times, he seemed unsure of his course, suggesting that Beijing and Washington might be nearing a deal and an end to the escalating tariffs. As he looks to the 2020 election, surely he is worried about a global slowdown and potential recession in the United States. At other times, he seemed determined to ratchet up the pressure, perhaps calculating that he is better off from a political standpoint heading toward the elections as the tough fighter unwilling to compromise. This is classic Trump: Keep everyone guessing and off balance. It is, however, a risky strategy, as recent plunges in equity markets have made clear. And it remains to be seen whether Beijing, or Washington, or both will be ready to blink. President Trump and President Xi may both decide in the end that they prefer confrontation to compromise. If so, the United States, China, the broader global economy will all be the losers.
The Trump administration seems intent on pursuing escalation until Beijing gives in to US demands that it fundamentally revise its state-capitalist model of development. China, for its part, has retaliated in kind with tariffs of its own, and does not seem ready to concede to Washington any time soon.
The drop-in of Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, was a surprise. Trump, not for the first time, said he would be willing to meet President Rouhani under the right conditions. Again, it was impossible to tell whether this was just political theater – or the beginning of a substantive dialogue between the United States and Iran. Judging by the stalemate that has ensued between Washington and Pyongyang – despite the direct contact between Trump and Kim Jong-un – as well as Washington’s commitment to putting “maximum pressure” on Iran, a breakthrough between Washington and Tehran looks unlikely.
Stepping back from the specific developments in Biarritz, perhaps the headline from the G7 is the missed opportunity – the degree to which the grouping now serves to highlight divisions among the world’s main democracies, not a collective willingness to come together to address common challenges. The G7 remains divided on climate change. There was no progress on avoiding a no-deal Brexit. On the pressing security issues of the day – Iran, North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan – no substantial progress was made. The G7 arrived at no consensus on the question of Russia’s potential return to the grouping, and offered no fresh ideas on facilitating dialogue between Russia and Ukraine even though President Zelensky’s arrival may provide an opening. On stimulating global growth amid looming slow-downs among major economics, again the G7 came forward with little of substance.
President Macron was right to aim low; he succeeded in avoiding a fiasco. But that is a pretty low bar – and a sad commentary on the sharp divisions that have opened up between the United States and longstanding democratic allies.
A summit that was placed, officially, under the sign of fighting inequalities, but where one also spoke about the topics that are contentious: the GAFA tax on which the French and the British - for once united - oppose the Americans, the environment, the trade dispute between the United States and China, and the question of Iran on which the US decision to withdraw from the agreement has been widely criticized by European countries.