By Patsy Widakuswara
The world’s largest advanced democracies — collectively known as the “Group of Seven,” or G-7 — will have their annual summit this weekend in Biarritz, a French seaside resort town known for its world-class surfing.
G-7 leaders here will not only have to navigate the world’s most pressing economic issues but also the temperament of a U.S. president known for his anti-globalist outlook and combative stance against allies.
Karoline Postel-Vinay is a research professor at the Paris-based institute Sciences Po, part of the Center for International Research. She says French officials are nervous and that host President Emmanuel Macron and his G-7 team are preparing to do as much “damage control” as possible ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit.
Postel-Vinay said she thinks that Macron, who holds the presidency over the group this year, is seeking to take a different approach to this year’s summit to avoid clashes with Trump. At last year’s G-7 in Charlevoix, Quebec, Trump threatened to halt trade relations with several G-7 members and insulted his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “meek and mild” in a tweet.
As a protest to Trudeau, who had pledged retaliatory tariffs against the United States, Trump also retracted his endorsement of the joint communique or official public statement of the 2018 G-7.
Macron told reporters Wednesday in Paris there will be no communique at the end of the coming summit. He suggested that disagreements involving Trump and other leaders on key issues such as Iran and climate change are the reason he will not issue one.
It will be the first time the G-7 summit will end without a communique.
‘Be prepared for theatrics’
“With Donald Trump, any summit host should be prepared for theatrics,” said Stewart Patrick from the Council on Foreign Relations, adding that Trump tends to take differences of opinion and national interest “in personal terms.”
Patrick said French government officials are “highly attuned to the risk that the president could throw a tantrum,” and would like to avoid that scenario while at the same time standing up for positions supported by other G-7 members so that “the group is not held hostage by one recalcitrant player.”
He added that Macron’s decision not to issue a communique is in line with the idea that a subset of G-7 members can move forward as “vanguard countries” to push the frontier of cooperation, even if not all members approve.
Although after a few rounds of these summits people are no longer shocked by Trump’s antics, they are still very disruptive, said Matthew Goodman, former White House coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, under the Obama administration. Goodman now holds the William E. Simon Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“When the U.S. isn’t leading or isn’t interested, then it’s very hard for others to achieve anything,” Goodman said, “and that’s been very visible in the last few G-7s and G-20s.” The G20 refers to the group of 20 major economies.
A belligerent stance on the world stage that’s in line with his “America First” doctrine may serve Trump politically as he vies for re-election in 2020. European allies “taking advantage of America” is a theme he frequently revisits to motivate his base.
On Wednesday, Trump again floated the idea of inviting Russia back into the club without precondition.
“We spend a lot of time talking about Russia at those meetings. And they’re not there. I think it would be a good thing if Russia were there so we can speak directly,” he said.
Trump also repeated his assertion that Russia was kicked out of the grouping because, “President Putin totally outsmarted President Obama.”
In 2014, the group suspended Russian membership over the annexation of Crimea, a territory part of Ukraine, which Moscow still occupies.
On Wednesday, Macron said that readmitting Russia without resolving the Ukraine crisis would underscore the “weakness” of the group. “It would be a strategic error for us and the consecration of this age of impunity,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russia has not expressed much desire to rejoin. In a joint press conference after his meeting with Macron at Fort Bregancon in southern France on Monday, President Vladimir Putin said, “How can I come back into an organization that doesn’t exist? It is called the G-7 today.”
Moscow may be playing “hard to get,” said William Hill from the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “They’re certainly adopting this posture, and let themselves appear to be pursued by Washington,” he added.
G-7 leaders’ anxiety over Trump is emblematic of the uncertainty faced by allies over the shift in the U.S. international role and what the consequences may be, at a time when the global economy faces threats of recession.
Europeans miss the America “we knew and we’re used to,” said Postel-Vinay.” Since the end of the Second World War, we were used to a leader of the free world that we were very comfortable with, and we’re not seeing it anymore,” she added.
This G-7 may be the summit at which leaders will be trying to work out the future role of the U.S., said Jon Alterman, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“They have figured out how to deal with this president, they have begun thinking in the long term how to deal with a different U.S. role on the world stage,” said Alterman. “How well it works out, whether they end up being surprised, or whether they end up having calibrated it fairly well is going to be what either makes or breaks this summit going forward.”
World leaders will officially begin the Biarritz 2019 G-7 Summit this Sunday.