Discord dominates as Trump and other leaders head to G-7 summit

Security forces prepare for President Trump and other leaders who are heading to the G-7 economic summit in Biarritz, France.
(Bob Edme / Associated Press)

French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of this weekend’s Group of Seven summit, recently expressed hope that the leaders will reaffirm a shared commitment to democratic ideals and multilateral cooperation in an era of political and economic turmoil.

That’s probably wishful thinking.

Even before President Trump leaves Friday for Biarritz, an elegant resort on the southwest coast of France, he urged the G-7 leaders to readmit Russia to the elite group. Russia was expelled in 2014 after its troops invaded Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in what Western leaders called a violation of international law.

Trump also picked a bizarre fight with a longtime ally. He scrubbed a planned trip to Denmark because its prime minister refused to consider selling Greenland, calling the notion “absurd.” He then called her comments “nasty,” the latest reminder that the leader of the nation that has anchored the transatlantic alliance for seven decades doesn’t fully share the values of traditional allies.


“There are no illusions anymore among the global leaders about who [Trump] is,” said Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “The global economy needs coordination at the top and he’s not doing it. He’s all for himself.”

The serene backdrop of Biarritz, famous as a seaside getaway since the time of Napoleon, belies the tensions roiling much of the industrialized world.

Global markets are slowing in part due to the damaging trade war between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies. A wave of nationalism, partly fed by fear of migration from Africa, is imperiling democratic leaders across Europe. And new threats to global security abound from Afghanistan to Kashmir, from Syria to the South China Sea.

This will be the first G-7 summit for the new pro-Brexit British prime minister, Boris Johnson, still a wild card on the world stage. Johnson’s pledge to quit the European Union on Oct. 31 — with or without an agreement — threatens to destabilize the world’s fifth-largest economy and reignite tensions between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It also will be the last summit for Giuseppe Conte, who resigned as Italy’s prime minister Tuesday rather than face an election demanded by Matteo Salvini, a nationalist demagogue whose popularity has continued to rise. Conte is expected to attend in a caretaker role.

Germany’s powerful chancellor, Angela Merkel, is coming as a lame duck. She is not running for reelection and her country’s economy — the largest in Europe — is in danger of slipping into recession. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is preoccupied with a bitter trade dispute with South Korea, another close U.S. ally.


Democratic leaders across Europe also are increasingly worried about Iran’s growing presence in Syria and a resurgent Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, months after Trump declared the terrorist group effectively destroyed and authorized a drawdown of U.S. forces.

The volatility is occurring as Trump largely dismisses international alliances and cooperation in favor of his America First policies, creating a vacuum in global leadership, according to his critics.

“The whole idea of world order is something that these other countries think a lot about, are quite preoccupied with. And they’re worried about how to sustain it without American leadership for world order,” said Jon Alterman, a global security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank.

According to the White House, Trump will meet with most of the leaders one-on-one in Biarritz. He’ll discuss Brexit with Johnson and is likely to press Macron to give greater support to U.S. efforts against Iran. Macron opposed Trump’s withdrawal last year from the Iran nuclear accord and has sought to unify the other G-7 countries around a strategy aimed at keeping the agreement intact and Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check.

Officials said the president will press Merkel to increase German defense spending, a longtime irritant for Trump, and push Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade disputes in maple syrup, metals and other commodities, another regular complaint. North Korea likely will be on the agenda when Trump meets Abe, the Japanese prime minister. Trump also is scheduled to meet with a leader who is not a G-7 member, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, which is locked in an escalating conflict with neighboring Pakistan over Kashmir.

“In principle, especially with the Chinese getting more powerful and the Russians in decline, the G-7 should be the guys that really get [along] and they just don’t,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk-assessment firm in New York. “It’s a very dysfunctional group. They can’t agree on climate, trade, technology — these advanced economies should have common cause, and it’s not just because of Trump that they don’t. A lot of these countries are increasingly divided.”


But Trump has helped lead the dysfunction.

At his first G-7 summit in May 2017, in Sicily, he rattled the other nations with threats of trade tariffs, his announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his vow to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. When the other six leaders walked to a final group photo, he insisted on taking a golf cart.

Hours after last year’s summit, in Quebec, Trump abruptly withdrew from the final joint communique — previously a largely symbolic formality — in a fit of pique because he was offended by Trudeau’s post-summit news conference. He slammed the Canadian leader on Twitter as “very dishonest & weak.”

In the last two months, Trump threatened to slap tariffs on billions of dollars of imports from China next month, ratcheting up the trade war and unnerving global markets. Trump insists only China pays the higher costs — a claim most economists reject — but he later delayed the tariffs until mid-December to spare U.S. consumers price hikes before Christmas.

Although his efforts to persuade North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to give up his nuclear weapons have gone nowhere, Trump has shrugged off Kim’s repeated short-range missile tests in recent weeks. And the president has refused to offer support for pro-democracy protesters opposing Chinese rule in Hong Kong, calling only for a “humane” solution to the escalating crisis.

If Trump pushes the other leaders to readmit Russia to the G-7, despite its continued occupation of Crimea, it likely will dominate headlines from Biarritz and sow further discord among traditional allies.

“Putin committed a mortal sin, he crossed the brightest red line and invaded a neighboring territory, which hadn’t happened in Europe since World War II,” said Burns. “What message would it send to just reinstate him? It would mean he wouldn’t have paid a price.”


Macron publicly pushed back on reports that he agreed with Trump on reinstating Russia, saying that the situation in Ukraine must be resolved first. Merkel is also likely to oppose readmitting Russia.

Macron also has pushed the G-7 to act as a counterweight to authoritarian regimes, reaching out to Trump — largely without success — for support.

“They don’t want to have six plus one. They want seven,” said Heather Conley, who directs the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now more than ever, they need a unified voice on economic challenges and global challenges. There is just no one now that has sufficient horsepower to move them.”

The best other leaders can hope for from Washington, at least while Trump is in office, is not to get in the way, Alterman said.

“Their ambition with the United States isn’t to get American help,” he said. “It’s to get American acquiescence.”

But in recent days, Trump has reminded other leaders of his need to be the protagonist in every plotline and his penchant for disruption.


After tweeting his plan to meet with Johnson on the sidelines of the G-7, Trump told reporters that he agrees with Johnson’s complaints that the European Union has been too tough on Britain as it seeks to exit the 28-nation bloc that Trump once described as a “foe” of the U.S.

“This will be Trump’s first time seeing Boris Johnson as prime minister, and it’s no secret the two get along,” said Rachel Rizzo, a Berlin-based adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s likely he’ll say something that signals support for the U.K. and blames the EU for the ongoing Brexit mess. Trump loves admonishing the EU whenever he gets the chance, and this weekend should be no different.”

Macron and Merkel, Rizzo continued, have gotten used to Trump’s behavior and, despite public expressions of optimism, at least from Macron, are no doubt keeping their expectations for the summit low.

“It’s now more surprising to everyone when he actually behaves,” she said. “It’s a sad commentary on the current state of the transatlantic relationship.”