The G7 Summit on 8 and 9 June 2018 in Charlevoix, Canada, ended in the worst possible outcome. Even an open clash at the negotiation table would have been better than President Trump’s post-summit withdrawal from the joint communique. On his road of destruction of the existing international order, Donald Trump has deprived the G7 of its operating principle: the forging of shared purpose as a basis of joint action among a select group of important countries. This is a bad omen for the upcoming G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the end of the year.
The illusion of G minus 1 as a viable alternative
Last year’s G7 Summit in Taormina, Italy, was one of the first international encounters of the newly-elect US President. Not surprisingly, the discussions at the Sicilian east coast were difficult and Donald Trump’s refusal to underwrite the consensus on the need to implement the Paris Climate Agreement seemed to indicate an emerging new modus operandi of club governance formats: G minus 1. The G20 Summit in Hamburg on 7 and 8 July 2017, six weeks after the G7 Taormina Summit, confirmed this perspective. While the US announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the other 19 members forged ahead and agreed on an ambitious plan to implement international climate commitments.
The outcomes of last year’s G7 and G20 Summits were not so bad after all. On the one hand it seemed possible to tame Donald Trump, for example by watering down the joint commitment on free trade, and where this was not possible, in particular on climate action, the G19 moved ahead. While I do not share the view that moving away from consensus as a key principle of club governance is a welcome improvement, it can be a necessary evil to bridge an exceptional situation such as the fundamental opposition of the US under President Trump against strong climate action. Not surprisingly, therefore, observers expected a G6 constellation on climate action as the likely outcome of the Charlevoix Summit.
Despite the initial bewilderment over Donald Trump’s initial suggestion to invite Russia again to the G7, the G7 leaders were able to hammer out a communique that followed the traces of last year’s G7 Summit in Taormina and the G20 Summit in Hamburg. In the Charlevoix communique, the G7 included a number of new initiatives where progress was possible, for example the commitment on equality and economic growth, reaffirmed some established commitments (e.g. on trade) and made clear where they do not agree (e.g. on climate action). It seemed that the G7 – and the G20 for that matter – had found a way to survive the dry period of the Trump Presidency falling back to the G minus 1 option when necessary.
Trump’s diplomacy 2.0
Donald Trump, however, surprised everybody by ripping apart the final communique after leaving the summit earlier to fly to his summit with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un. He could have fundamentally opposed an agreement in Charlevoix, he could have tried to play off some countries against the others, he could have even left the negotiation table, but what Donald Trump eventually did is much worse than this. He backtracked from his commitment to underwrite the joint communique, by writing a short note on Twitter, and left everybody else in disarray. It may have been a spontaneous reaction to the press conference given by the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, but the outcome of Donald Trump’s action is very serious and emotional self-control is a necessity for the leader of a global power. International cooperation depends first and foremost on trust – and willfully destroying trust is a highly conflict-prone action.
The raison d’être of club governance formats such as the G7 and G20, that do not have a formal institutional structure, is that their members are able to forge a shared purpose as a basis of joint action. For this, they need to rely on each others’ words and the statements made in direct discussions. After the Taormina and Hamburg Summits of 2017 it was reasonable to expect that it is also possible, at least for a certain period of time, to create shared purpose and take the necessary actions even without the US. In any case, you have to sit at the negotiation table to do this and at least agree on disagreement. When Donald Trump withdrew his consent the negotiations were already completed and there was no possibility for the G6 to react in a coordinated fashion.
Less G7, more G20?
The G7 process will be in a limbo for quite some time as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have to figure out how to react to Donald Trump’s discontent. Worse still, the post-summit dispute over the communique may result in the increasing irrelevance of the G7.
What does this mean for the upcoming G20 Summit in Argentina? While there is still some hope that the US President will not just walk away from a previous commitment in the context of the more significant G20 format with the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping sitting at the table. More fundamentally, however, the outcome of the G7 Summit in Charlevoix means that the diplomats of the G19 have to go back to their drawing boards as the G minus 1 option does not work anymore as a viable plan B in view of a US President who is willing to withdraw his consent by a click on his smartphone leaving everybody else speechless.