By now, the discord at, and still larger discord surrounding, the latest G7 leaders’ meeting should be obvious to everyone from statements and some telling images that have been generated for all eternity. Much of the discord must be laid directly at the feet of US President Donald Trump. He is already on record as believing such things as G7 meetings, and most multilateral meetings more generally, are largely a waste of his very valuable time; time that could presumably be better spent fixating on the broadcast rants available on Fox News, or in curating his own, increasingly unhinged, Twitter feed.
The heads of government from the US, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy, and this year’s host, France, met this past weekend and on into Monday at a splashy resort hotel on the coast of south-western France in the town of Biarritz, using the luxurious palace built by Napoleon III for his wife, Eugenie. This G7 meeting is a yearly event, rotated around the attendees’ countries and while this year it was in France, next year it will take place in the US. More on that particular point in a moment.
International leaders’ meetings are not something new, of course. Aside from mythic ones such as the deadly but ceremonial face-off between two leaders of the attacking Greek and defending Trojan forces outside that fabled city’s walls; perhaps the most famous leaders’ meeting (before our modern era) took place in 1520 at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold” summit in northern France, between England’s Henry VIII and France’s Francis I. This meeting evolved out of the Hundred Years War between those two nations.
But giving greater impetus to that meeting — a meeting that actually featured a wrestling bout between the two sovereigns — was a growing realisation by the leaders of France and England, as well as in the mind of Charles V, the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Low Countries, and much of the New World, about the threats to Christian Europe from the continuing growth of Ottoman military power all across southern and central Europe and in the Mediterranean Sea.
More recently, leaders’ summits have become a routine feature of the world diplomatic stage — from the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna, the Versailles Conference after World War I, the increasingly frequent meetings of the leaders of the World War II allied alliance, then on into the Cold War — and now, in the present. In place, now, the G7, the G20, the Nato leaders’ summits, the BRICS summit, the UN General Assembly openings, plus others, such as the various EU, APEC, Mercosur, AU, and Asean meetings, all fill the global calendar. But in some significant ways, the G7 has remained the primus inter pares of meetings.
The G7 was originally the G6. It was then expanded to the G8 with the inclusion of the post-USSR Russian Republic, that is until the latter was ousted following its invasion of the Crimean Peninsula and a more sub rosa attack on the eastern frontier of Ukraine. This has meant the G7 has had a remarkable reign of impact as a gathering of the world’s largest democratic economies. (It has left out China and India, along with a Russia eager to regain its space at the table.) The larger G20 gathering has included all three of those, plus many more, including South Africa.
Originally, the group of six was created in 1975 as an annual gathering of leaders to discuss and exchange ideas on a broad range of issues, including the global economy, international security and energy. The six had initially wanted a forum to discuss economic concerns that at the time had included rising global inflation and then a recession following an Opec oil embargo. Canada joined the group the following year. The EU joined the meetings in 1977 as a close observer and participant, but not as a formal member. In 1998, Russia was invited to join as a sign of cooperation between East and West following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, until its disinvitation. The seven current members represent some 40% of global GDP and 10% of the world’s population.
The question of Russia’s return to G7 meetings has been repeatedly brought up by Trump, despite unanimity by the others disagreeing with this, given Russia’s use of force to change a European border. Speaking to reporters just a few days before leaving the US for France, however, Trump had said Russia should be allowed to rejoin the group, arguing, “I think it’s much more appropriate to have Russia in. It should be the G8 because a lot of the things we talk about have to do with Russia.” Not surprisingly, that did not go down well with the other G7 partners.
The landscape for this year’s meeting, at least from the Trumpian optic, had already been set in motion with the message cascade from Trumpian Twitter and White House lawn statement chaos about the US-China trade troubles, and whether the US leader had any second thoughts about tariffs on Chinese products and the resulting Chinese retaliations.
Depending on which minute you observed, there were those second thoughts, yes, but whether there should have been even stiffer ones was left out there as well, waving ominously at everyone invested in any stock market on the planet. And then there was that manufactured controversy over the proposed sale of the island of Greenland by Denmark to the US. “Absurd,” had said the Danish prime minister to that, and the US president then promptly and childishly cancelled his state visit to Copenhagen.
By the time the gathering began, the bad blood between Trump and the rest was obvious. Commenting on the meetings, The Washington Post noted:
“President Trump began his final day at the Group of Seven summit with declarations of progress about major global challenges including trade and nuclear proliferation but offered scant evidence that he and other world leaders gathered in France had made breakthroughs in the lengthy agenda of world crises discussed over three days of talks. The final day was set to be pivotal for the leaders, as they sought to cap a summit marked more by whiplash, mixed signals and surprises than by concrete results.”
At the Trump-Macron post-meeting press conference, Emmanuel Macron said the two men had reached an agreement on a pending digital economy tax dispute, that there was a “roadmap of sorts” for dealing with Iran and that, according to Macron, “Discussions are under way currently, in particular between President Trump and President Xi,” and the leaders would work to ensure “no one is treated unfairly”.
Macron went on to note, “There was a lot of nervousness because of misunderstanding,” but participants would “work on a bilateral and multilateral basis” to address trade issues. But, in the end, there was no overall G7 meeting communique.
The session dedicated to global climate change and environmental disasters was indicative of the stresses within the overall meeting. While there was agreement on a $20-million fund to be made available immediately to the Amazon countries to combat the raging forest fires in that region, and the launch of a long-term initiative to protect the rainforest, the US president actually boycotted the session dealing with such environmental and climate concerns. The photograph of the session with the chair reserved for Donald Trump vacant was especially telling.
Eventually, the Americans explained the absence with a reference to a purported set of meetings with the German chancellor and the Indian prime minister set for the same time period. The only problem with that excuse was that both leaders were clearly visible at the environmental issues session Trump had failed to attend. (Several global leaders such as India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi were also in Biarritz for bilateral conversations as invited non-members of the group.)
On the larger trade front, the Trump administration kept insisting that the Chinese were telling the US they were ready to negotiate on trade, despite Chinese insistence they had made no such direct overture. Moreover, the Trump administration also insisted the US and Japan had reached their own trade agreement, with the Americans insisting the Japanese government would be making massive purchases of US corn, even as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe insisted any purchases of US grain would come via private purchasers. Perhaps wish fulfilment has yet again overtaken reality, already a persistent problem in the Trump White House.
But the real surprise moment came when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made an unannounced visit to Biarritz at the invitation of France’s leader. This dominated news coverage on a day the US had sought to focus on the global economy. Given the US president’s strong opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, the JCPOA, during the presidential campaign and then the US’s subsequent withdrawal from the accord once he became president, it was unlikely anything of consequence would come from that impromptu arrival. And it did not.
By the time Trump and Macron had a post-game press conference, Trump was back to repeating his old mantra about those supposed gifts of billions of dollars given to Iran by the US, by virtue of the accord, and why that deal was the worst-ever international agreement ever negotiated. Ever.
Not surprisingly, the US president used some of his evening “down time” to send out those now-trademark conspiracy theory tweets alleging malfeasance and corruption in the FBI. You have to ask yourself, “Why? Were there no briefing papers to read on the upcoming discussions?”
On other Trumpian adventures, the president spent an unconscionable amount of time and broadcast time extolling — shamelessly promoting is more like it — the virtues of his own Doral country club in Miami as the next G7 meeting venue. The use of this facility would likely generate many millions for that club (and thus for the Trump Organisation), something rather important for Trump’s finances, given the club has apparently been losing revenue since Trump became president.
While the host nation gets to select the actual venue, it is unprecedented for a host leader to punt his or her very own property as the site for the international gathering. And it was, without question, pretty damned embarrassing as a demonstration of sheer, unadulterated crassness in its presentation. All this happened along with Trump’s repeated disparaging of his predecessors, as well as some of his would-be opponents in the 2020 election. In France, on global television screens.
Looking at the overall outcome of this meeting, it might even begin to call into question the rationale for having large, complex, media-intensive global meetings where the agenda quickly becomes notional and where the most important global issues — global climate change, trade liberalisation, human and civil rights in troubled spaces — quickly get overwhelmed by the ephemera of spin and deliberate misdirection.
Taken as a whole, it was a classic of Trumpian pot-stirring, but with no resolution of anything — or even any real clarity or consistency in Trump’s publicly spoken inner dialogue. Or, as CNN’s Jim Acosta said in describing the Trumpian method, “It was like watching a cat chasing a laser pointer dot.” Now that is a metaphor that cannot be easily unheard when contemplating Trump’s method of international diplomacy. DM
Tigers cannot purr.