The Significance of this Year’s Unusual G7 Summit
The Group of Seven (G7), consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is a forum that was founded to facilitate discussion and cooperation on shared economic and political goals by the seven largest economies. It began as an informal meeting between US Secretary of the Treasury George Shultz and the Finance ministers of key US allies, namely West Germany, France, and the UK, in 1973, and was eventually expanded to include Japan, Italy, and Canada. The EU has also been represented at G7 summits since 1977.
Russia was included from 1998 onwards, resulting in the forum being called the G8, but was ejected from the forum following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Previous summits have focused on improving and facilitating international trade, reducing trade barriers, and discussing coordinated approaches to crises such as the Syrian Civil War, which was discussed in the 2012 summit held in the UK. Traditionally, a Joint Communiqué is written at the end of each summit, which reaffirms the views expressed and commitments made by member nations.
This year’s G7 summit was unusual in that it was characterised by marked hostility between the US and its traditional allies and trading partners; whereas previous summits have focused on shared values and commitments, with the US standing alongside its allies in condemning Russia and upholding liberalism in international trade, the 44th summit has made it clear that US interests and priorities have shifted away from those of its allies, and has been described by some commentators as being more akin to a ‘G6+1’ meeting than a G7 one. This hostility is perhaps best exemplified by the clash between US President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Given that US-Canada relations in the period leading up to the summit were damaged as a result of the imposition of tariffs by the US on Canadian steel and aluminium, and President Donald Trump reportedly accusing Canada of having burnt down the white house in 1814 in a call with Mr Trudeau, among other things, the clash between the two leaders is perhaps unsurprising – however, there was still an expectation that some common ground would be found, as Mr. Trump had backed last year’s G7 joint communiqué reaffirming the group’s traditional united approach, despite making it clear that the US view on climate change, among other issues, differed from the remaining six nations.
This year, Mr. Trump spent most of the summit criticising the other nations for being ‘unfair’ and taking advantage of the US, and paid lip service to the idea of shared values while making it clear that ‘America First’ was his main concern. Furthermore, he expressed support for including Russia in the forum once again, which was met with a negative response from all the leaders present except for the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who said he believed including Russia “is in the interests of everyone,” and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who made no comment, clearly attempting to balance Japan’s desire for improved relations with Russia with his commitment to the G7 nations.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s desire to continue business as usual at the summit by discussing the issues of gender equality and climate change, and reaffirming shared commitments, appeared to clash with the need to protect Canadian interests. Despite attempting to address the US concerns over international trade, his efforts ultimately backfired as, soon after leaving the summit, the US president launched a personal attack on Trudeau, calling him “dishonest and weak”, and stated that he had instructed US representatives to reject the joint communiqué that had been agreed upon at the G7 summit. The events of this summit have implications for every nation involved, as well as the entire international community, as it has demonstrated a new US approach to international diplomacy. The fact that the US President left the summit early and pulled his support for the joint communiqué while prioritising his bilateral meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be an indication that the US will continue to play an active role in international issues but is no longer concerned with building consensus with its allies.
Overall, it appears that the UK, France, Germany, and Canada remain committed to maintaining the ‘rules-based international order’, as referred to by Prime Minister Theresa May in her address to the House of Commons following the summit, though what this means in the context of Brexit is unclear. French President Emmanuell Macron went so far as to imply that the US was no longer needed in maintaining this international order, stating that “we don’t mind being six, if needs be”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed disappointment with the US, while German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stated that there will be consequences, and implied that Germany will have to reconsider its approach to international trade.
The situation with regards to the remaining two members of the G7, Japan and Italy, is more complicated.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who was appointed only 48 hours before the G7 summit to represent a government comprised of the anti-establishment ‘Five-Star Movement’ and the right-wing populist Northern League, took a balanced approach at the G7 summit. Despite siding with President Trump on the issue of Russia, he did not oppose the EU consensus on issues of trade, which suggests that the Italian Government is still evaluating its approach to foreign policy despite having been elected on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform.
On the other hand, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is faced with a delicate balancing act – he requires US support on the issue of North Korea, but US tariffs will significantly damage the Japanese economy, especially given that President Trump has proposed tariffs of up to 25% on vehicle imports into the US. Vehicles make up approximately 15% of Japan’s overall exports and 38% of those vehicles are exported to the US, meaning that any tariffs imposed by the US would affect Japanese businesses significantly.
Moreover, Japan has been attempting to negotiate with Russia to resolve their territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands, and has held several meetings over the past few weeks with Russian leaders with the goal of ‘cultivating closer security and economic ties’ in order to bring the two nations closer to resolving their disputes . This means that Mr. Abe is unwilling to fully side with the UK, France, Germany and Canada on the issue of excluding Russia from the G7/G8, as that would jeopardise his efforts to reach a settlement with Russia.
Overall, this G7 summit may represent a turning point in global trade and international relations, and is yet another indication that economic liberalism and the international order that dominated the past several decades is now in decline.
By Bilal Asghar